Delicacy of touch isn't a particularly valued commodity among American filmmakers. We like pioneer swagger in our directors; particularly in the age of the blockbuster, open-ended questions and eyelash-fringe feelings are suspect. That's why it's always been hard to know how to categorize Sofia Coppola, one of our most gifted directors. Her movies — like the somber-funny father-daughter western Somewhere, or Marie Antoinette, that Tiger Beat-pinup portrait of a lonely teenage queen — have been written off by some as soft and wispy, cirrus clouds with not much there there. But Coppola's movies, so unassumingly tensile and precise, are less about being there than about being here. At her best, she makes movies that live in the present instead of just reflecting it.
And that's precisely where The Bling Ring fails. Coppola adapted the script from a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, documenting the crimes of a bunch of fairly well-off kids who couldn't resist the allure of celebrity stuff: They repeatedly broke into the houses of lip-glosserati like Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Paris Hilton, making off with more than $3 million in cash, watches, clothing, jewelry, and shoes. The picture is a departure for Coppola, a half-appalled, half-amused piece of social reportage — it lacks the illusive pastry layers of mood and tone she's known for. Perhaps that's why it's almost impossible to know what Coppola is trying to say, or how she feels about her characters. It's as if she found her way to the material and discovered, too late, that it was an empty shell.
Coppola opens her story in the middle, with a vivacious montage of kids plundering an upscale walk-in closet as if it were Ali Baba's cave, pawing through trays of gaudy jewels and grabbing at squishy, four-figure handbags. Later, we get to know these ambitious little wanna-bes. Marc (Israel Broussard) has just started at a new school that's apparently geared to misfits. The kids eye his bland, basic clothes and whisper behind his back. Only Rebecca (Katie Chang), breezy and confident, with the kind of studied, faux-sexy pout seen in 1,001 teenage selfies, bothers to speak to him. He warms to the attention, and Rebecca initiates him into the world of petty thievery.
Rebecca, like the Andrea True Connection, just wants more, more, more. So she and Marc up the ante with the help of a few pals — including Emma Watson's Nicki and Taissa Farmiga's Sam, both of whom live with a wackadoodle blond mother figure mischievously played by Leslie Mann. Soon they're Googling celebs to find out who's out of town and then breaking and entering into one fancy manse after another. Hilton's lair is the ne plus ultra — the celebutante actually allowed Coppola to film there — boasting a separate room lined floor-to-ceiling with those blobby-looking spike-heeled Christian Louboutin platforms so beloved by women with crap taste and pots of money. The girls aren't the only ones who prance and preen in these My Little Pony hooves; Marc finds a pair of hot-pink patent leather numbers that fit him, and he flaunts them proudly for his female coterie, in the process betraying a touch of almost poignant gender confusion.
Marc, in fact, is the character Coppola clearly sympathizes with. The vapid, acquisitive, self-absorbed twiglets around him hold less interest for her, and for us. (At one point, he offers these very silly girls sage wardrobe advice: It's a no-no to mix leopard and zebra.) Coppola takes great pains to stress Marc's yearning to belong — he steals because he's hurting — and Broussard is sensitive enough as an actor to send out the appropriate lonely-boy vibes.
But even though Coppola is one of our most compassionate storytellers, she can't bring herself to like these kids much. She's not cynical enough to turn this story into satire. (A younger, less arch Alexander Payne might have had a field day with it.) And for a filmmaker who loves beauty and beautiful things as much as she does, this story offers zero riches; the trappings these kids covet are mostly hideous markers of status and nothing more. The picture comes off as an anti-stuff screed, but a false, shallow one. It's easy for us to walk away feeling self-congratulatory about our anti-consumerist virtue when most of us wouldn't want this junk anyway.
The Bling Ring would be more effective if it instilled some desire in us, some way for us to connect with the hankering that drives these kids. At the very least — if you can block out those Louboutin eyesores — it is, like all of Coppola's films, beautiful to look at. (The cinematographers are Christopher Blauvelt and the late, great Harris Savides.) The Bling Ring's gorgeous visual centerpiece is subtle and wonderful in the Sofia Coppola tradition. We watch, in wide shot, as our greedy thieves make their way through a thoroughly mod house in the hills — they steal from room to room, silent, romantic figures in the bluish dusk. For these few, captivating minutes, they're strangers in the night. But by morning, they're once again people we don't want to know.