Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: Like it or Not, "The Bling Ring" is an Honest Look at Our Sad Future

Left to right: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, and Claire Julien

As I stated a few weeks back, I believe that The Bling Ring has a lot to live up to. It was voted as my pick for most likely to sweep the Oscars. Of course, that is coming from someone who has campaigned hard for Spring Breakers, but the film had a pretty high pedigree that I felt gave it an odd. Director Sofia Coppola remains one of the few female directors who has held a Best Director nomination. While maybe not intentional to the story, it stars numerous performers who are related to older, more established names. This is a film that stood a chance to be The Social Network of the year. A tedious account of the modern era in an enticing new way. Does the director of Lost in Translation deliver on the chances?
One thing that you'll have to get over very quickly is finding a way to relate or like anyone in this story. The Bling Ring follows a group of teenagers as they rob celebrities that they idolize. Along the way, they post the pictures on Facebook and brag about it while they do illegal activities for those underage. All set to a soundtrack reminiscent of a pop culture dance floor, the story moves without giving an opportunity to slow down and get to know anyone except Marc (Israel Broussard), who claims to be innocent, but is only doing it to make friends. 

There's a reason that this film will be polarizing. While the film begins by glamorizing the behavior, the target audience is most likely not going to enjoy it. These foul-mouthed thieves wreck stolen cars and find entitlement in stealing from their definition of beauty: celebrities that are nothing but sex symbols and embody fashion. They don't want to change the world. They just want to be famous, and it is an unfortunately brutal attack on today's modern ideals.

Just like Spring Breakers, this is the year of the amoral corruption of our youth. Unlike Harmony Korine's candy-coated masterpiece, this looks slick on a different scale. Mixed in with Marc's narration of regret, the story just seems to go door to door, robbing people and then as Nicki (Emma Watson) does, cover up their tracks by blaming personal beliefs or that they were somehow connecting to their idols. The very idea that they robbed someone doesn't phase them at all and they are somehow pariahs. Depending on how you take the story, it will either be a pain to watch these people or an enjoyable satire when the third act finally sees them punished. Based on Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Loutboutins," this case has been readily covered.

Of course, that is the charm of a Sofia Coppola film. Regardless on quality, she doesn't give away her characters. Even if they are vapid and empty, she allows the audience to judge them on their own. At times their ignorance is comical and other times it is just a depressing reflection of our youth. I would wish that this recent cinematic trend would lend to bettering society, but as The Bling Ring suggests by the end, this is a vicious cycle of hero worship, and even then their heroes are coked up people better known for sex videos than charity. Coppola's approach is unflinching and it will leave an uncomfortable feeling, if just because this is the zeitgeist in all of its vapid glory.

The film is a mess, but only in the same ways that these characters are. The soundtrack is often times grating pop songs that say nothing and leave little in terms of memorability. The opening Sleigh Bells song comes with a vengeance and the camera technique used is established. These people are painted as rebels. As the story and soundtrack gets longer and weirder, we realize that these amoral teens may be the antiheroes of the year. They will step on anyone's toes to get to the prize. While it is fun to exploit celebrities' homes, the method just feels dirty and leaves the viewer to question their own ethics. Mine personally involve ignoring it, as the greatest insult to something is to never acknowledge its existence.

This may even be a testament to the performances, which almost are on par with Spring Breakers for lacking in depth, but leaving a memorable corpse. One of the most amazing aspects of the film is that Israel Broussard manages to exist as a homosexual character without it overpowering his story. He isn't bad because of his sexuality. He is unsympathetic because he was the voice of reason to people he shouldn't have hung out with. Popularity is the name of the game here, and his decline into criminality is the film's brilliant subtext that allows it to be an even more depressing story. The other characters all unfortunately don't have much significance, as they only care about clothes and dancing. Still, their commitment is so convincing that any sense of irony is lost in favor of a great air headed performance.

I could write a whole piece on why The Bling Ring should be this year's most significant film, but it is also frustrating because of how honest it is. While Spring Breakers could be seen as escapism fantasy, The Bling Ring hits its subject straight on and allows you to decide. It will make you squirm and wish that these people weren't so foolish. It may make you hate it, but within the bigger context in which they get their due, you have to admit that even the very striking, third-wall breaking ending in which Nicki shares her personal website (found here), there is a sense that we have lost our reality and our goals. For some, this will be seen as the great American satire. For others, it is just a reason to stop procreating. Coppola is amazing for making you decide what it is to you.

Emma Watson
I would personally love to see The Bling Ring make the Best Picture race. The challenging nature is very much needed in the race. Still, there is a lot of detractors that make me believe it won't. Notably, these are polarizing characters, and even if you don't agree with the Academy, they tend to not choose polarizing pictures. Even last year's Zero Dark Thirty, which was dark and infamous for torture scenes, had an edge because of its relation to history.The Bling Ring is the definition of having no history and wandering through life as meanies with valley girl accents. Also, with the Academy tending to be older voters, the very idea that young people are ruining Hollywood may be seen as an antithesis to their recent trend of pro-Hollywood movies winning Best Picture, like The Artist and Argo.

Like Zero Dark Thirty, there is still that edge that it could get in on Coppola's name alone. While post-Lost in Translation, she hasn't stood much of a chance, she still is part of an iconic family that has been nominated in the past. While that may be too nepotistic to expect a breakthrough, I like to think there's good will between her and the Academy to earn a Best Picture slot. I don't feel like she is flashy enough in the right ways for Best Director. Of course, there could be argument that the Academy has gone back to their non-female nominee ways by unfairly axing Kathryn Bigelow, who I would have preferred over Steven Spielberg's nomination.

The most that I can expect at this point unfortunately is a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. I am not an expert on the category, but I do believe that this category somehow manages to bring out the best in voters. They choose films with subject matter that somehow doesn't usually apply to other categories. Of course, they also go ambitious at times, like last year's Best Original Screenplay winner Django Unchained. As undeserved as it was, it proved that the Academy still took chances. The Bling Ring, while possibly not going to be the financial box office champion, is as ambitious as films get in defining the zeitgeist in 2013. It captures the tone without forcing perspective and the hypocrisy in these characters manages to be shown in a humanistic way.

One of the things that I would love to mention is that Emma Watson has surprised me in the past three years specifically. Not being the biggest fan of Harry Potter, I wasn't the one who immediately expected success. Alas, there was My Week with Marilyn, which was a rather bit part. Then it kept getting juicier until last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was a solid coming of age story, though it was a little too trite and sappy for me. Watson appears to be having a lot of fun with her post Harry Potter career at a more successful level than any of her costars from the first days. It is also impressive to see her range. It hasn't been used in much, but I do feel like if she keeps taking on ambitious roles, we're only years away from a legitimate Oscar nomination. The Bling Ring could be if the category is weak overall, but I don't know if vapid characters do well in the Best Supporting Actress race, especially with a lack of sympathy or morality.

Despite the lack of Oscar Buzz I deem it, it does manage to rank as my favorite so far from the initial list with Frances Ha, which at very least shows potential for women in cinema this year. I love the role reversal, even though mainstream Hollywood is only giving us The Heat, which stars two Oscar nominated actresses but looks like garbage anyways. I hope that the year continues to give us some surprises, even though The Bling Ring, Stoker and Spring Breakers will be hard to top.

Is The Bling Ring destined for Best Picture? Is Sofia Coppola's tale one of if not the year's best, one of the year's essential long term looks at the zeitgeist? How soon until Emma Watson gets that nomination?

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