‘The Bling Ring’ examines celebrity-obsessed culture

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Graham Haught/Staff

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The story would sound utterly unbelievable — if it weren’t true. Between 2008 and 2009, a gang of affluent teenagers — nicknamed “The Bling Ring” by the media — stole more than $3 million in clothing, handbags, jewelry and cash from the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson and a number of other young celebrities. The Bling Ring were able to determine when their victims would be out of town, using gossip sites such as TMZ, and found their addresses with a simple Google search. The homes they robbed had almost no security — Paris Hilton even left the key to her front door under the mat.

The story of this gang is the subject of Sofia Coppola’s latest film, “The Bling Ring.” Although Coppola has previously presented studies of youth and fame (“Somewhere,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Lost in Translation”), “The Bling Ring” examines a new generation that worships celebrities not for their talent but for their designer labels and media visibility.

The Bling Ring celebrated their crimes by posing for selfies with the designer gear they stole and posting them on Facebook. In an interview with The Daily Californian, actors Katie Chang (who plays Rebecca, based on Bling Ring leader Rachel Lee) and Israel Broussard (who plays Mark, based on Nick Prugo) described that “nowadays, it’s easier and easier to become a celebrity without really going through the normal channels of gaining recognition, and in fact, the normal channels are becoming YouTube and Twitter and Instagram, and I think that creates a whole skewed perception of ‘Oh, I can be famous just by being myself.’” Broussard discussed how social media allows celebrities to essentially “rub [their fame] in these kids’ faces … They’re in the same city, they go to the same spots … Why can’t I be them? Why can’t I just hurry up and be them?”

The Daily Californian Arts staff interviewed Katie Chang and Israel Broussard, actors in Sofia Coppola’s latest film “The Bling Ring,” on the making of the movie and their views on the modern-day “celebrity.”

Coppola is careful to avoid satirizing or passing judgment on her characters. Chang explained, “I think the way that Sofia wrote it, it was more about their actions and less about their personalities. We took some traits that we saw either on the TV show (the short-lived “Pretty Wild,” a reality series starring a number of the alleged Bling Ring members, including Alexis Neiers, on whom Emma Watson’s character Nicki is based) or in interviews of what people have said about the real-life kids. We are able to create our own characters around the script.”

Coppola assigned the cast a number of research exercises to prepare for their roles, including keeping journals for their characters, taking trips to Kitson and Robertson Boulevard together, doing mini-fashion shows and even carrying out a mock break-in into one of Coppola’s friends’ homes. Chang recalled, “I got an email from our (personal assistant): ‘Rebecca, this Friday you are going to be breaking into Rachel Bilson’s house. Here’s a list of things that you need to find; here’s the time that you have to get out of there by; Google the directions; find a way to get there; figure it out.’”

Unlike the majority of films about wild, careless high-schoolers, sex is significantly absent from the lives of these characters. Chang explained, “In a lot of movies about teens, there seems to be a lot of sex involved, but I feel like the sexuality is kind of implied in some characters (in this film) — the way that Nicki dresses, the things that she says … I think that’s enough. That’s all that Sofia wanted to give because she really wanted the audience to be hit hard by their consumption and the robberies, and adding one other layer would have been (too) much.”

However, the film itself is somewhat limited. While it is certainly more action-packed than 2010’s “Somewhere,” it still comes across as quite dull. Coppola’s decision not to offer a comment on celebrity obsession or exorbitant materialism can leave the audience feeling frustrated; it is as though the film is taking itself too seriously and taking too seriously the vapidity of the characters.

Despite these shortcomings, the film is aesthetically stunning. The time period of the film is ambiguous, combining the garish style and popular trends of 2008 with modern music and technology. It is interesting to see how Coppola manipulates designer labels — although the stolen Versace and Chanel look flashy and ostentatious on their new owners, they still possess a degree of enticement, adding to the sense of ambiguity the film exudes overall. Twenty years from now, the film could serve as a pretty perfect time capsule of early 21st-century youth culture.

Meadhbh McGrath is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Check her out on Twitter at @MeadhbhMcGrath.