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'Bling Ring' a bright, breezy film with a message ★★★

"I think Los Angeles is so the center of American culture right now," writer-director Sofia Coppola says in the production notes for her swift, clever bauble "The Bling Ring," because "of all these reality TV shows."

That's an interesting statement, starting with the notion that a reality show represents or belongs at the center of anything. Famously without a geographic focal point, LA has been described as the city of nets, of locusts, of angels, freeways and earthquakes and, undeniably, of mass-market, image-based show business.

The point of Hollywood celebrity is to live the life hiding in plain sight — on a hillside, or in a canyon, or on the beach, near everything and everyone yet nothing and no one. Hide-and-seek: That's the true fan's game of choice. The stars hide; the ardent admirers seek. With a breezily nonjudgmental air, "The Bling Ring" fictionalizes this story of five seekers.

These were Calabasas, Calif., teenagers who, in 2008 and 2009, went on a house burglary spree netting more than $3 million dollars' worth of bling. Whose bling? Famous people's bling! Seeking fame by association and designer labels by ill-gotten means, they busted into Lindsay Lohan's house, and Orlando Bloom's. And Paris Hilton's. Five times, they robbed Hilton's house. (Hilton plays herself in the film; so does her house.)

Underwear, outerwear, makeup, shoes, Cartier, Prada, Burberry: The five thieves knew what they wanted, how they wanted to look and the celebrity lifestyle they needed to borrow. The 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales on this strange and strangely funny story was titled "The Suspects Wore Louboutins." The names have been changed in Coppola's film to protect the idiots, whom the filmmaker generously treats as ordinary insecure SoCal bubbleheads who learned to indulge, imbibe and purloin too much at a young age, whose moral compasses must have been hocked along the way.

The cast's certified name, Emma Watson, plays Nicki, a character based on Alexis Neiers, who pole-danced, taught yoga and had her own E! reality TV series, "Pretty Wild," when the Bling Ring's hot streak came to a well-publicized end. The ringleader, though, a smiling bird of prey played by Katie Chang, is Rebecca, the girl who recruits the lonely new boy at school (Israel Broussard, like Chang a performer of serious promise) in the group's larky, risky, galling adventures.

Coppola is fascinated by the trappings, atmosphere and mixed blessings of privilege. "The Bling Ring" is content to hang out with its subjects, as they plan their next break-in and then throw money around the latest hot nightclub. They're like peewee versions of the Versailles groupies in Coppola's "Marie Antoinette."

A few visually felicitous moments nudge "The Bling Ring" into a mysterious and dreamlike realm. My favorite is an extended long shot and slow zoom, filmed from an adjoining perch somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, of two of the kids executing their latest stealthy break-in, skipping from room to room, undetected. Coppola and her brilliant cinematographer, Harris Savides, keep the action simple, but the perspective is perfect: We're watching it unfold, from a distance, smiling at what we're seeing, and also a little appalled. The composition's perfect. Savides died shortly after making "The Bling Ring." That shot, which Coppola says was dreamed up by Savides, is a lovely testament to how many different ways a great cinematographer could make natural and artificial light, in the city of devilish angels, tell old stories in new ways.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Bling Ring' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating
: R (for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references)
Running time: 1:27
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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