This month saw the release of two Hollywood-centric films purporting to be set in the real world. One of them is an artistic tour de force about a group of friends who squabble, steal, and raid celebrity mansions in a haze of drugs. The other was directed by Sofia Coppola. (Interestingly enough, both films prominently feature Emma Watson, but only one of them was bold enough to arm her with a fireman's axe.)
If you'd asked me last Monday which film would set the pace for summer — "The Bling Ring" or "This Is The End" — I'd have put all my money on the former. Unfortunately I did put all my money on it, spending $13.75 at a New York City theater in exchange for ninety minutes of limp direction, limp acting (Leslie Mann and the aforementioned Watson excepted), and limp social commentary about how reveling in celebrity culture is like, totally morally corrosive but also sort of shiny and awesome — and that's coming from someone who adored every minute of "Marie Antoinette."
Then, over the weekend I spent $5.oo on a matinee in Arizona to see Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's "This Is The End," a comedy in which Rogen, Jonah Hill, and other comedy stars (playing themselves) endure apocalyptic events together while holed up at James Franco's new house. Similarities between the two movies were not immediately apparent — mostly because it was impossible think at all for quite some time. But eventually I realized that pretty much every artistic itch "The Bling Ring" leaves unscratched is satisfied by this far less self-serious film. Among the films' other points of overlap:
- Celebrity cameos. Kirsten Dunst's appearance in "The Bling Ring" is a total eyeroll since everyone knows she starred in Coppola's last big movie, and she and Paris Hilton only appear onscreen for three seconds apiece. The roles assigned to Rihanna (!!!), Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, and many other notables in Goldberg's film are far meatier and more surprising.
- Celebrity lifestyles. Coppola's protagonists have such a narrow range of priorities (money, shoes, jewelry, more shoes) that we learn surprisingly little about the forbidden worlds they're invading. The characters' lack of curiosity seems to be shared by Coppola, whose interior shots are so static that at times they're nearly indistinguishable from the snippets of security-cam footage. Franco's and Rogen's homes in "This Is The End" may not be real, but a lot more thought is invested in what it's like to live (and die) in them.
- Gunplay. Without any real spoilers, both films feature uncomfortable moments in which firearms are playfully brandished by inexperienced and irresponsible characters.
- Car crashes. Hardly a spoiler in either case, especially since Coppola resorts to the cliché long parallel tracking shot that by now everyone associates an impending crack-up. "This Is The End" has more (and less predictable) crashes.
- Drug use. Both films feature it heavily, but while it feels like a shortcut for explaining motivation and character development in Coppola's film, Rogen and the gang have a keen eye for showing how different chemicals affect group dynamics. These are, after all, the minds behind "Pineapple Express."
- Technology/self-obsession. Halfway through "The Bling Ring" I started kicking myself for not keeping count of the kids' gratuitous Facebook selfies. "This Is The End" covered the same ground (and revealed more) in the form of asinine video confessionals, observing the way techno-narcisssists can't cope with tragedy without imagining that an audience is watching.
So what's my real beef with "The Bling Ring"? One reviewer wrote: "As with her best films, Coppola is utterly at ease in this milieu and it shows." I would argue that in this case it's not actually a compliment; you can see evidence of the director coasting in nearly every scene.
From the opening credits to the exit interviews, the movie Coppola seems to be using as her template is Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" even down to the true-crime aspect (Nicole Kidman's character is based on convicted murderess Pamela Smart). But whereas Van Sant managed to simultaneously shock, entertain, and preach American moral turpitude in virtually every scene, Coppola only seems capable of achieving one or two of those at a time, leaving the audience with the chore of figuring out what (if anything) it all means.
Coppola whips out the "inspired by true events" title card, but then proceeds to show us only those events — already familiar to anyone who's seen the reality show "Pretty Wild" — without digging particularly deeply to explore what's beneath them, and most of her actors are too inexperienced to help much. Perhaps she felt emboldened by the success of "The Social Network" (another comparable but superior "true events" film), but she doesn't have the cast or the obsessive directorial vision to play in that arena this time around.
Reactions to her mixed messages led Indiewire to ask "Does Sofia Coppola have a problem with privilege, or do her critics?" That would be a fair question to ask about a first-time filmmaker, but Coppola's spent a decade winning over tough critics with her impressive body of work. In this instance, I feel very comfortable pinning the problems on her.
In general, critics and audiences have spoken. "This Is The End" currently has an 8.0 critical rating on IMDB and 85% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to "The Bling Ring" with 6.5 and 61% respectively. The former was the number two film at the box office last weekend, grossing over $20M; despite being the darling of Cannes, the latter netted only $214K. Granted, everyone's judging these as different types of films, but won't you please consider Richard Roeper's observation that Seth Rogen's film is "just about perfect at executing its mission, which is to poke fun at its stars, exhaust every R-rated possibility to get a laugh, and even sneak in a few insights into Hollywood, the celebrity culture and the nature of faith," and then tell me whether you agree that Coppola just may have truly been skunked at her own game?
From where I'm sitting, she's been robbed.
Tom Blunt is the producer and host of "Meet the Lady," a recurring variety show that pays tribute to oft-overlooked women in cinema, part of the film program at New York's 92nd Street Y. His blog, Doom Cakes, has been profiled in The Guardian and Edible Geography. Tom has also written for New York Magazine, Hadassah, and the television channel AMC. For more from Tom Blunt, head over to WordandFilm.com.
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