What's it like to be rich and famous?
For generations, starry-eyed teens have indulged that hypothetical fantasy. What would it feel like to wear a beloved star's dresses? Or her jewelry? Or her makeup and perfume? What would it be like to drive her sports car through the Hollywood hills? To live in a secluded, gated mansion?
For most teens—virtually all of them, actually—those questions never slip past the daydream stage that comes with paging through Us Weekly or watching Entertainment Tonight's coverage of bling-bedazzled celebs on the red carpet.
For a handful of teens in Los Angeles in 2008 and 2009, however, those fantasies became reality when they broke into the homes of Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, Rachel Bilson, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan. For a while, they got away with it, "living the dream," wearing the stolen bling—three million dollars of it.
Then reality caught up and sent them to jail.
The Bling Ring tells a Hollywoodized version of their Hollywood story, changing names and some of the details, but based on writer Nancy Jo Sales' 2010 Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins." It seeks to show us how such an audacious crime spree by teens longing for a taste of celebrity got hatched.
And it wouldn't have been possible without a ringleader. In this twisted fairy tale, it's a troubled high schooler named Rebecca, a young woman with a substance abuse problem that's landed her in a school for those who've been kicked out elsewhere. Rebecca rolls with a posse of three other hard-partying, pot-smoking, club-hopping girls, Nicki, Sam and Chloe. And then there's Marc, the unassuming new kid whom Rebecca practically adopts as her latest party buddy.
At an alcohol-fueled high school party one night, Rebecca suggests to Marc that they head outside and see if any cars are unlocked. Marc's unsure what she means … but quickly figures it out when Rebecca hits the jackpot in a vehicle where someone's left a wallet full of cash and credit cards. The ill-gotten haul soon supplies some designer duds.
Things quickly escalate.
First Rebecca and Marc rob the house of a classmate whose family is on vacation. Then, the big leap: While hanging out surfing the Web one night, Marc says, "Paris Hilton's hosting a party in Vegas tonight."
"Where does she live?" Rebecca replies.
Just as Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers does, The Bling Ring tells the story of teens who believe they can live a wildly hedonistic lifestyle with no limits and no consequences. Emboldened by the ease with which they get into Paris Hilton's L.A. abode (she left the keys under the front doormat), Marc, Rebecca, Nicki, Sam and Chloe soon find themselves caught up in a spiraling spree of celebrity break-ins. Each time, they help themselves to whatever they want.
None of that is positive, obviously. But anyone watching the story knows that these teens' lawless fantasy must end. And eventually it does. Video surveillance of Marc, combined with pictures from the girls' Facebook posts and testimony from fellow students (to whom the Bling Ring cavalierly bragged about misdeeds) lead to the thieves' arrest and trial.
Along the way, the film suggests several philosophical nuggets it intends for us to learn from:
First, the magnitude of stuff crammed into those celebrity mansions is, simply put, obscene. Paris Hilton's home—which was actually used as a set for the movie—boasts more shoes, jewelry and clothes than the average mortal can even comprehend. Indeed, upon their discovery of her treasures, the teens can't stop saying, "Oh my god!" as they paw through Paris' belongings. It's as if they've been ushered into a kind of secular heaven, a materialistic paradise beyond all imagination.
Second, "Salvation," in the film's terms, consists of the teens helping themselves to whatever they want. But even as the kids cram designer bags full of celebrity booty, director Sophia Coppola invites us to see that no amount of stuff is likely to fill these misguided kids' inner emptiness. In one scene, Rebecca tries on one of Lindsay Lohan's dresses, sprays herself with Lindsay's perfume and just stares at herself in the mirror, as if dreaming that she has actually become Lindsay.
Third, almost all the teens come from broken families, and several have parents with substance abuse problems. The film doesn't proffer those factors as excuses for the teens' choices, but it does hint at the reality that those significant family issues do help explain why these kids' moral development has been stunted almost to the point of nonexistence.
Only Marc displays much sense of right and wrong. He repeatedly tells Rebecca they shouldn't do what they're doing, that they should quickly leave the houses they've broken into. But Marc longs for acceptance more than he longs for rightness, and that longing overrides whatever pangs of conscience he occasionally exhibits. But in an interview after being arrested, Marc admits it's "awkward" that he has a Facebook fan page dedicated to doing something illegal.
The conclusion shows Marc sitting pensively in handcuffs and wearing an orange jumpsuit, facing years behind bars. In stark contrast, Nicki is freed from jail after serving only 30 days of a one-year sentence. She never takes responsibility, continues to lie and ends up on a celebrity news program bragging that she actually spent the night in jail next to Lindsay Lohan!
Lindsay's in jail for stealing jewelry as well. The distance, physically and metaphorically, between the teen wannabes and a bona fide celebrity reduced to almost nothing. Thus the film suggests that the Bling Ring has successfully granted to at least one of its participants the status and fame she desperately sought to steal from others—reinforcing a damning take on our celebrated culture of celebrity excess.
Nicki's mother, Laurie, is an adherent of the narcissistic New Age prosperity spirituality found in the book The Secret. She leads her family in "prayers" and affirmations from the book, which focus on achieving what they want. Mom simultaneously talks about her desire to be a better person and to work for "the greater good of the planet." She tells a reporter that her family attends the Agape Church of Religious Science in Los Angeles, which is affiliated with The Secret.
Nicki and Sam (whom Laurie has adopted out of a terrible family situation) pay lip service to their mother's idealistic and abstract prayers, but they're clearly just playing along to please and appease her. At one point, Nicki tries to bamboozle reporters with a barrage of spiritual mumbo jumbo in which she says, among other things, "I'm a firm believer in karma" and that she wants to be a more spiritual person.
It's suggested that Chloe has a sexual relationship with the much older security chief at a club, the implication being that this is why the teens are granted carte blanche access to the hip hangout. Likewise, Sam is involved in a sexual relationship, and we see the pair begin to make out on a bed. Conversation implies a possible sexual encounter between Sam and an older man.
Marc says Rebecca has become his best friend, and that he loves her. But he says it's the kind of love someone might have for a sister, not romantic love. For her part, Rebecca kisses him once on the cheek, as a sister might. Marc is constantly present with the girls, who often change into the clothes they've stolen right in front of him. He (and we) sees them in bras, never exhibiting even the slightest sexual interest in them. So the movie uses those details, combined with Marc's own love for fashion, his penchant for reading women's style magazines and the fact that he steals a pair of pink shoes, to suggest that he is gay.
Nicki and Sam dance suggestively at a club, and Nicki shows off even more suggestive moves on a stripper pole in Paris Hilton's house. All of the girls wear revealing outfits. Nicki and Sam share a bed, and we see them getting up in their underwear.
Chloe is driving drunk when she has an accident that leaves a large bruise on her head. (We see the impact from within the car.) Stealing a pistol from Megan Fox's house, Sam waves it dangerously around Marc's face. Later, she has a rendezvous with her boyfriend in which she tries to give him the gun, accidentally firing it into the floor.
Crude or Profane Language
About 25 f-words. At least 15 s-words. God's name is misused nearly 30 times; Jesus' is abused once. "B‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "d‑‑n" are each used about five times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Drugs and alcohol permeate The Bling Ring. Teens are shown smoking (cigarettes and marijuana, rolled and from bongs and pipes) in many scenes at parties in houses, on the beach and at the club. They steal alcohol and prescription drugs (including Xanax) from celebs. After her accident, Chloe brags to her friends that her blood alcohol level was "off the charts," and that the police didn't even know how she could be alive, let alone driving.
Rebecca and Marc find a bag of cocaine in one of Paris Hilton's vehicles, which they snort while driving the car. After that, cocaine use is depicted repeatedly, and it's clear Rebecca and Marc are using stolen money to buy more of the drug. Chloe and Rebecca sing rapper Rick Ross' song "9 Piece," in which we hear a slang reference to buying cocaine or meth. Nicki and Sam take Adderall.
Other Negative Elements
The group brings Nicki's 13-year-old sister, Emily, with them for one heist, sending her crawling through a small dog door at Megan Fox's house in order to break in. Sam, meanwhile, isn't prosecuted for her participation because she was never caught on camera. Chloe's much older boyfriend, Ricky, knowingly buys seven of Orlando Bloom's stolen watches from Marc. (He's later arrested.)
The question with hard-R "based on a true story" movies always boils down to this: Is it a cautionary tale that informs and challenges our understanding of some of our culture's core problems, or does it romanticize those problems in the process of depicting them on the big screen?
The answer is usually yes.
Sophia Coppola provides a seemingly realistic take on what these teens' burglaries may have been like. And for those inclined toward sussing out the moral of the story, The Bling Ring could serve as a postmodern parable of sorts about the vacuous values our celebrity-obsessed culture is serving up to eager, impressionable and rudderless teens.
But it's also not hard for me to think that teens who see this movie could come away with some very different ideas as well, namely that alcohol, marijuana and cocaine use is (or at least can be) normal; that having a thoroughly duplicitous relationship with your parents is just part of growing up; and that having risky sexual relationships with older men is glamorous.
I left something out, didn't I? There's that whole stealing from celebrities thing. If I was a Hollywood superstar right now, I'd be investing in a better security system and getting it installed before this film rolls to wide release status all across the country. Why? Because The Bling Ring reveals just how easy it is to gather information on celebs and then use it to exploit them. Marc and Rebecca's approach is ridiculously simple—as easy as Googling addresses and then paying attention to when stars have engagements out of town.
Taking that lesson to heart, Paris Hilton recently told CNN's Piers Morgan, "This could not have happened five, 10 years ago. There wasn't Twitter or Facebook or any of these things, so nowadays people know exactly where you are, so I've been more careful with that, and also putting the most extensive security system in my house, so this cannot happen again."
Will The Bling Ring make moviegoers want to try? Well, that's why this whole art-illustrating-life business can be so touchy. Even what's intended as a warning can sometimes be absorbed as an inspiration and a blueprint.