TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "The Bling Ring" is the new film from Sofia Coppola who made "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette." It's based on the real-life story of a group of Southern California teenagers who in 2008 and 2009 began breaking into the homes of Los Angeles celebrities and stealing their so-called bling - everything from designer clothing to watches and jewelry. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that their crime spree says a lot about our current cultural values.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We live in a world filled with crimes but most of them don't have much to tell us. They're cases of mere stupidity, cruelty or greed. But every now and then one comes along that invites larger thoughts about the culture. Think of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death while nearly 40 witnesses heard her screams but didn't want to get involved. Or the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, which felt like the final mad curdling of the '60s political dream.
Or the Ponzi scheming of Bernie Madoff, that hollow pillar of the community who came to personify the 2008 financial crisis. Such crimes felt emblematic. Of course, not every emblematic crime is heavy. Take Sofia Coppola's entertaining new film "The Bling Ring" about a posse of thieving teens from L.A.'s prosperous West Valley suburbs.
It's a true story but you can believe its plot was dreamed up by some witty professor of cultural studies who wanted to make a point about America consumerism and celebrity mania. Israel Broussard plays Marc, the new kid at school who desperately wants to be cool. He becomes friends with Rebecca - that's Katie Chang - who's obsessed with fashion and celebrity. Brainy and amoral, Rebecca suggests that they break into the Hollywood home of one of her idols - Paris Hilton.
They do. And they grab what they want from her laughably teeming closets. Soon they and several friends, including a wanna-be reality star Nicki, played by Emma Watson, are robbing the homes of other tabloid luminaries - Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Audrina Partridge. Tracking their victims' movements on the Internet, this so-called Bling Ring eventually grabs $3 million' worth of designer clothes, Rolexes, Louis Vuitton luggage, and red-soled Laboutins.
We've come a long way from the days when the young created a counterculture or chaffed at parental restrictions. In "The Bling Ring," adult authority is so squishy that the kids might as well punch a blob of Jell-O. Here, one of the mothers, played by Leslie Mann, tries to enlist her daughter and friends in a visualizing exercise about values.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLING RING")
LESLIE MANN: (as Laurie) OK. So we are going to make vision boards about people who are demonstrating good character. Like Angelina Jolie.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MANN: (as Laurie) So what qualities do you guys admire about Angelina Jolie?
TAISSA FARMIGA: (as Sam) Her husband.
MANN: (as Laurie) Mm-hmm. OK. Anything else?
EMMA WATSON: (as Nicki) Her hot bod.
MANN: (as Laurie) OK. OK. Well, the hot bod is not a characteristic, but OK.
WATSON: (as Nicki) How long do we have to do this for?
MANN: (as Laurie) Well, we're going to do it till we finish, and then we're going to move on to the fluorescence work.
POWERS: If you're older than about, oh, 19, you may spend "The Bling Ring" wanting to break into a chorus of "What's the Matter with Kids Today?" The bling ringers don't merely have a sense of entitlement the size of a stretch Hummer, they have all the moral intelligence of a vacuum cleaner. More feckless than sinister, they boast about their crimes, parade around in their loot, even post pictures on Facebook, which helps get them caught.
Now, Coppola is no incisive social analyst, but her movie does get you thinking about the society that could produce "The Bling Ring." After all, its young robbers aren't that far out of the American mainstream. Indeed, they're an almost natural offshoot of a consumption-crazy culture that incessantly celebrates the idea of owning fancy cars, fancy watches, fancy clothes. They're driven by the same heedless desire to live large that led grownups to run up vast unpayable credit card bills.
Or to make millions selling off shares in worthless mortgages. Their enthrallment by celebrity is mainstream too, endlessly reinforced by a 24/7 media that keeps pretending that nobodies are stars. In the past to be famous you had to do something. You know, have a hit song or win Wimbledon. Now, you simply have to grab attention or possess the signifiers of fame. If you dress like Paris Hilton, you can be like her. So why not steal her clothes and wear them to the same club she'd go to?
This isn't to excuse the Bling Ring's crimes, of course. Hundreds of other kids went to that same high school and managed not to be crooks or worshippers of Lindsay Lohan. And at the other end of the spectrum, countless other young people joined Occupy Wall Street to change the world. They wanted to narrow the gap between the privileged few and the vast majority who are made to feel like powerless losers.
Not so, the Bling Ring whose members clearly see that same gap but are blissfully untroubled by anything resembling idealism. Far from wanting to make a better world, they embrace much of what's shallowest in this one and are willing to break the law to get their share. Talk about rebels without a cause.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.