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Thoughtless and Dishonest | The Nation

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Thoughtless and Dishonest

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Based on a report that Nancy Jo Sales wrote for Vanity Fair, The Bling Ring is the more or less true story of five high school kids from the affluent northwest suburbs of Los Angeles who, in 2008 and ‘09, allegedly stole some $3 million in designer clothing and jewelry by breaking into the homes of celebrities. These were apparently crimes of emulation as much as greed, carried out by young people who aspired, if they could not rise to the eminence of their highest models in life, such as Paris Hilton, to at least own their stuff. The curve of potential mockery bends toward infinity, yet Coppola restrains her satirical impulse in The Bling Ring, shaking her head ruefully more often than she snickers.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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The one target she finds irresistible among her fictionalized characters is Nicki (Emma Watson), a bubblehead who has been home-schooled on a diet of psycho-spiritual pablum. After her arrest, Nicki instantly disavows her consumerist orgies and, with the help of a team of publicists, issues statements about her commitment to an unspecified philanthropic mission. “Thank you for respecting my privacy,” she drawls in dismissal to the TV crews that she hopes will never go away, her expression so self-righteously deadpan that you might think she herself had respected the privacy of her victims (or that her victims, all creatures of the camera, had a lot of privacy left to violate).

But these moments of acidic humor, which are funnier than any in Blue Jasmine, are an element of contrast in The Bling Ring, as is Watson’s star turn. (She stands out in an ensemble of newcomers for her fame, and also for playing the one character whose realization demands a Blanchett-like mutability.) For the most part, Coppola weaves the film’s texture from the experience of the character who is Nicki’s opposite: Marc (Israel Broussard), the only boy among the thieves. Shy, tentative, gay and too willing to please, he is the voiceover narrator of The Bling Ring and the principal focus of the film’s dominant quality, empathy.

Judgment, as far as Coppola is concerned, can be taken for granted. Laughter is a given, and attempts at understanding would be just so many exercises in social stereotyping. What she wants is to get behind her characters’ eyes, onto the surface of their skin, inside the rhythm of their breathing. That’s the truth you ought to get, she thinks, in a movie based on a true story. So, even while making her most satisfyingly story-driven film to date, Coppola immerses you in scenes long after you’ve absorbed their narrative purpose, deprives you of transitions that would be merely informational, makes the color and intensity of the light feel like a constantly changing, pervasive influence on events, and never puts any music onto the soundtrack that the kids wouldn’t be listening to right then.

Formally, she could not be further from Allen, that devoted practitioner of the evenly lighted, symmetrical composition. He always gives you the establishing shot. When he’s made his point in a scene, he cuts. His usual soundtrack mix of Dixieland, blues and American songbook standards, imposed like a running commentary that’s not always relevant, tells you nothing about the characters but emphatically proclaims the identity of their author. Allen is capable of sympathy, if not empathy; he can even be touching, though not often in his post–Mia Farrow period. But more and more over the years, he has tacitly asserted that he’s in control and on the outside. In Blue Jasmine, he reaches a peak in the dispassion that his severe critics describe as contempt, or even cruelty.

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In this case, those critics would be wrong. With Blanchett’s collaboration, Allen has invented a Blanche DuBois without the sexual ache, a Blanche whose one flashback about crawling into bed with her husband is not about getting his body but maintaining her status. Empty of libido, much as the grand residences that are one of the film’s motifs are void of furnishings, she tells anyone who will listen, most of all herself, that what she did for her Madoff, she did for love. We see, though, through Allen’s unpitying view, that it was all for what the money could buy.

Perversely filmed in San Francisco, a city known for bohemianism and the freedom to love, Blue Jasmine is in its chilly heart a portrayal of the American elite as so many high-class prostitutes and johns. As a sociological proposition, that wouldn’t amount to much. As a movie, though, it’s devastating. A beast has got loose.

* * *

The day before a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of having murdered Trayvon Martin, theaters around the country began showing Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, a fictionalized account of the death of a 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, at the hands of a white Bay Area transit policeman in 2009. For better and worse, that timing has made it difficult to think about Fruitvale Station simply as a movie—for better because the historical brevity of black men’s lives, and the relative impunity enjoyed by the nonblacks who end them, is a subject that ought to be continually on the minds of all Americans (even though it seems to have escaped the thoughts of the Zimmerman jurors); for worse because Coogler has done pretty well with this first feature, but ought to be encouraged to try a little harder on the second.

The best thing Coogler did was cast Michael B. Jordan as Oscar and Octavia Spencer as his mother Wanda and surround them with an entirely credible version of life in Oakland’s black community: the physical details precise, the social ambience flowing naturally. Less creditable is the way Coogler’s screenplay seeks to ratchet up the audience’s feelings about the killing by sentimentalizing, and almost sanctifying, Grant’s life. In reality, much of the public outrage about his death was sparked by something far more raw: cellphone videos of the killing. Fruitvale Station incorporates one of these dim, shaky, horrifying pieces of digital eyewitness. Its artlessness shows up the artifice.

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