Based on a series of crimes committed by celeb-obsessed teens from Calabasas, Calif., Sofia Coppola's lightly fictionalized “The Bling Ring” chronicles how the culprits used social media and basic, Internet-derived intel to break into homes owned by Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge and other reality TV/tabloid regulars. Like “Alpha Dog,” another unsupervised teen melodrama based on real Los Angeles events, “The Bling Ring” boasts some convincing performances but comes across as getting high off its own luridness, never letting the viewers forget that what they are seeing is both an indictment of modern, shallow, media-soaked life and a cynical celebration of the same.
All the names are changed to protect the narcissistic: Rebecca (Katie Chang) is the lead instigator, seducing depressed social outcast Marc (Israel Broussard) into breaking into celebrity homes, eventually involving wild-child Chloe (Claire Julien) and fame-centric adoptive sisters Nicki and Sam (Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga) in their string of burglaries. They use paparazzi and entertainment websites to track when stars would be out of town, then steal their clothes and jewelry and post photos on Facebook. When police finally descend on the group in the film, their reactions say more about their personalities than any of the bottle-service partying and five-fingered discount sprees of the previous hour. “I've been watching TMZ. They say I'm a person of interest in these burglaries,” Rebecca says, impressed with the fact that she is sharing soul-sucking tabloid space with Hilton and Lohan. Being a person of interest was all she really wanted.
And it's there that things get more interesting, as Nicki uses her newfound infamy to spout platitudes about enlightenment and her future as a leader, much of it derived from her mother's obsession with the self-help book “The Secret.” Watson practically owns the final third of the film as Nicki and her mom (Leslie Mann) manipulate the press into buying their garbage. But Coppola is playing this for maximum “tsk tsk” value, and while earlier films such as “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette” hinted obliquely at the nature of fame and bauble worship, “The Bling Ring” has all the subtlety of one of Harvey Levin's heavily scripted “newsroom” meetings from “TMZ on TV.” It's no surprise, then, that the DVD's featurette on the real-life “bling ring” features hair-gel-encrusted paparazzi from TMZ smiling and gloating about their importance in this story. It makes the whole enterprise stink of complicity in this ugly little chapter in the coarsening of media culture.