By the time Harvey Levin sat down on the cultural toilet to drop TMZ on us, Sofia Coppola's career as a writer and director was well underway. But the three movies she has made since the celebrity-gossip clearinghouse's 2005 arrival, starting with the next year's Marie Antoinette, are oddly difficult to imagine in a world without TMZ — not to mention, now, Gawker and Facebook and Instagram. As Coppola has painstakingly chosen and plumbed the rarefied places where privilege and alienation poison the well, the ground has grown shallower and shakier and drier under her.
And her audience ... well, her audience might be, to look at The Bling Ring, too drunk on Red Bull and Grey Goose to worry about the water.
Coppola's latest air-conditioned, plastic-covered dispatch from the thirsty fields of entitlement is terse as a telegram, and it conveys an all-caps message daringly stripped of narrative and nuance: The only thing worse than the zircon-crusted, reality-TV-ifying of our infotainment moment are the people who want into it and have somehow been denied admission.
That's not much of an insight, but Coppola's mission seems to be an almost documentary flattening of her true-story material (even as she spikes it with typically adroit use of pop songs). So Bling is both a snapshot of the world's stupidest in-crowd and a cold valentine to it. Cinema is rich with gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight stories; this is probably going to stand for a while as its best gang-with-too-many-Rolexes tale. Her screenplay — minimal even by the pointillist standards of 2010's hypnotic Somewhere: "Omigod!" "Oh. My God." "Shut up!" Repeat — takes no real liberties with the credited source, a 2010 true-crime Vanity Fair article (Nancy Jo Sales' razor-sharp "The Suspects Wore Louboutins"), and her direction eavesdrops on the action instead of driving or responding to it.
What we overhear, what we see through grimy surveillance cameras and under nightclub neon and by moonlight and in white California sunshine, is a greedy coven of girls (and one boy, not quite the sociopath his friends turn out to be) who steal money and clothing and jewelry from several C-list celebrities. They do this by figuring out that Paris Hilton (whose gaudy home and face are here as themselves) and others don't bother to lock their homes when they leave for the party, or else leave a key under the mat. They do this because they can, because it's there, because it's as natural as friending them online. And then they get caught because they show off the haul on Facebook.
The actors — mainly Israel Broussard as the boy (Marc) and Katie Chang as his klepto BFF (Rebecca) — make themselves believably airy and unconflicted. Taissa Farmiga and Emma Watson are pulling faces more than giving performances, but that's the idea, and they're both funny. No one is sympathetic, but no one annoys. As the characters say, often and about nearly everything they bother to comment on, it's all chill.
There's been some carping among critics that The Bling Ring is too chill, that it's the most there's-no-there-there of Coppola's IMDB credits. The inevitable countersuit is that she has again set out to show us the dangers (and, perhaps more, the pleasures) of a society with so little will to allow much there in the first place. But Bling is something else. It sets aside the boredom of Lost in Translation and Somewhere, a boredom trying to reach escape velocity. Instead, Coppola follows the low, decaying orbit of characters who appear clinically incapable of introspection, who don't know what they'd leave behind even if they could generate momentum.
The slim but glossy result is a film that plays like a GIF of gimme — one that refuses to deliver. If you don't reject it right back, if you don't immediately weary of its purposely vapid figures, then you might read it as the driest, meanest American comedy in a while (and one that seems more dangerous than its violent, cross-eyed stepsister, Spring Breakers)
At first that refusal feels like an accident, as though some assistant editor wiped a hard drive that contained a couple of crucial, motivation-establishing scenes. But the most revealing and entertaining quotes and descriptions from Sales' reporting are all onscreen, and even at her movie's most dreamlike and lustrous (this was the last work by the gifted cinematographer Harris Savides, to whom the movie is dedicated) Coppola packs her frames with witty detail.
Like her other movies, Bling is also a cross-section of a larger verge moment, of characters in a bubble watching other people try to live outside the bubble. It invites us to project our headline anxieties and class hostilities onto its young, pretty, resentable population. In the background of this one, though, is a national bubble: the 2008 financial meltdown. The thefts start in the fall of 2008, just as Lehman Brothers boils over. The big banks go without mention here, as does the government and the bailout and the election and everything not related to The Hills or the Hiltons. But the pains about to be dealt the rest of the country, at just this short remove, feel like something seen the wrong way through a telescope: tiny, insubstantial. The foreclosures had begun, but the girls were waiting for bottle service, and Coppola makes that amusing without making it cheap.
It helps, of course, that everybody goes to jail.
Online at nashvillescene.com: Steven Hale on the Jeremy Scahill documentary Dirty Wars, ending Thursday, June 27, at The Belcourt.