Pop open any one of the designer handbags displayed proudly on the hips of The Bling Ring and the only thing that won’t come tumbling out is a functioning moral compass. Their story is a true crime ripped from the headlines of TMZ — a group of well-off, fame-obsessed teenagers that perused and robbed the homes of celebrities from October 2008 to August 2009. They were the products of minimal-supervision upbringings in Los Angeles; members of a generation that idolized celebrities, not just for their career achievements, but also for their high-end endorsement deals. And now, they are shallow portraits of an indulgent society, immortalized with the infamy they so desired in Sophia Coppola’s aptly titled, The Bling Ring, a film so deliciously vain that it could stand alongside its merry band of superficial thieves.

Adapted by Coppola from the 2010 Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” the film zeroes in on Marc (Israel Broussard), the new guy in school, who finds himself under the fashionable wing of Rebecca (Katie Chung), a cold-eyed socialite with a pinnacle for swiping the wallets and purses of those unfortunate enough to leave their cars unlocked on her suburban street. Eventually, she clues Marc and her three friends — party girl Chloe (Claire Julien) and vapid half-sisters Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Nicki (Emma Watson) — in on her little secret, and the group decides to up the ante. With the help of a criminally simple Google search, The Bling Ring finds the home addresses of their favorite celebs (including Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan), slips in through open windows and front doors with the keys under the mat, and snatches up over $3 million in name-brand clothes, jewelry and accessories like it’s a fire sale. Why, you ask? Well, because they can. But seeing as how they are teenagers and not criminal masterminds, they are ultimately arrested and convicted — effectively killing their shopping-spree buzz.

What’s so shocking about The Bling Ring’s exploits is not that they committed them — who hasn’t dreamed of living a glamorous lifestyle — but how arrogantly dismissive the gang is about their actions. The minute they are discovered, they snap into the defensive-PR mode they have learned from the scandals of celebrities and try to wiggle their way out of their wrongdoings. Putting on a show for the cameras outside of her trial, Nikki tears up and says, in her most condescending tone, “I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I wanna lead a country one day, for all I know.”

Just as preposterous is Coppola’s visual directing style, which is effective because shooting the Ring’s story any other way wouldn’t do justice to its absurdity. She capitalizes on beautifully intoxicating sequences (thanks to her late cinematographer Harris Savides) of the gang grinding at a local club, rifling through the worldly possessions of their victims, and even some gorgeously serene exterior shots of their modern mansions tucked away in the Hollywood Hills. One residence is teeming with so many glass walls that the camera doesn’t even have to be inside to capture the robbers running around like kids in a candy store — one of the film’s more entrancing scenes.

The performances delivered by the cast, mostly newcomers brought in to embody the vitality and arrogance of the consumerist generation, are exuberant enough to fit right into the glitzy context. Watson, in particular, is delectably engrossing as the sharp-tongued spoiled princess Nicki (the film’s variation of the group’s most prominent member, Alexis Neiers, whose trial became the subject of the E! reality show, Pretty Wild). Nicki is deviously clever and personifies the dual identity of the sexualized party girl (who knows her way around a stripper pole) and the self-aware opportunist (who uses her legal troubles as a career launching pad). Spouting lines like “You’re stressing me out” and “I wanna rob” with an unbridled sincerity, Watson doesn’t break a sweat sliding into Nicki’s undoubtedly high (and equally uncomfortable) heels.

Waiting patiently at home with their miniature dog tucked under her arm is Nicki and Sam’s willfully oblivious mother (played with a tongue-in-cheek brilliance by Leslie Mann). She is of the brand that believes her daughters’ morning dose of Adderall and a quick prayer session will sweep their late nights of clubbing under the rug. She is an embodiment of those parents just skirting by until they can ride the coattails of their children’s 15 minutes of fame, however it may come.

Standing as a blemish on an otherwise compelling film is Coppola’s indecisive approach to storytelling, which, in a story with such obvious morality violations, comes off as conceited neutrality. We don’t know whether we are supposed to indulge along with the Bling Ring or condemn them for their lack of common sense. Marc, the film’s one remotely empathetic character, experiences the only hesitant quips seen or heard onscreen regarding their extracurricular activities, but is quickly put in his place as a coward, so as not to ruin their ravenous fun.

Simply put, she forgoes any efforts to dig deeper than the gang’s exterior facades to flesh out some inkling that remorse or genuine emotional response may lie beneath their carefully coordinated outfits. Instead, she relies too heavily on her incessant need to show every robbery and the Google search that got them there — a choice that sends the film into a monotonous and transparent spiral that varnishes its voyeuristic appeal. Is she afraid that she might find something that could weaken the group’s blistering (and therefore entertaining) vanity? That remains to be seen, but her inability to investigate further gives the film an abridged texture.

While it may be cocky and careless at times — teetering toward becoming no more than a polished E! True Hollywood StoryThe Bling Ring is still an effective and equally fascinating cautionary tale that could easily become the poster child for any number of societal issues: parental negligence, consumerism, home security systems, etc. And yet, even in Coppola’s more than capable hands, and with their respective prison sentences, The Bling Ring still never seems to locate that moral compass. Maybe that’s because Gucci and Prada don’t make those…yet.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The Bling Ring opened nationwide on June 21, 2013.

Trailer Courtesy of A24Films.

Featured image: Katie Chang and Israel Broussard in a nightclub in “The Bling Ring.” Photo Credit: Merrick Morton/A24.

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