Zombies of Calabasas

Sofia Coppola, after an initial period of wunderkind delight, seems to have settled into the role of a director that people want to like more than they actually like her.  She followed up the very good The Virgin Suicides with the great Lost in Translation, but that was chased by the problematic Marie Antoinette and the downright frustrating Somewhere; now, she dips her toes in the world of contemporary crime drama with The Bling Ring, which, even if it weren’t sidled with a terrible title and the most hideous credit graphics outside a workplace training film, would still have a lot of problems.

Coppola still retains an amazing eye.  The brilliance she displayed as a framer of shots in Lost in Translation hasn’t dimmed, and I wasn’t as disappointed as some at the long-take minimalism that she moved towards after the bombast of Marie Antoinette; there were a few scenes in The Bling Ring that were flat-out gorgeous, in particular a long, slow-moving, intricately choreographed take where Katie Chang and Israel Broussard scuttle madly through a modernist glass mansion as the camera creeps towards it from a high promontory.  She is also quite adept at making us feel the emotions of others through observations; some of the silent, slow-motion shots of Chang’s Rebecca are enough to convince us why Broussard’s Marc felt such loyalty and devotion to her, so pure does the image put us in his headspace.  But there’s an awful lot of padding in The Bling Ring as well; even at a lean 90 minutes, you’re left wondering if it could have clocked in at under an hour if there weren’t so many repeated sequences of singing along with the radio in cars and duckfaced Facebook montages.  It gives the whole project a feeling of a talented filmmaker who’s all too willing to coast.

As a director of films that at least seem to be trying to say something, Coppola has come under fire for making movies exclusively about privileged lollards who it’s difficult to care about, and The Bling Ring will do nothing to dispel this criticism.  As a crime film, it’s exactly the opposite of what we expect (which is a good thing) and demand (which is a bad thing) out of the genre:  there is no tension, no consequence, no action, no foreboding.  The kids of the Bling Ring are to a man — or, rather, to a woman — insufferably entitled little shits who can barely credit the notion that someone might want to punish them for stealing millions of dollars in cash, jewels, clothes and cars; they view their crimes as little more than shopping trips, and they take so little care in concealing their tracks you are left wondering if they even have the concept of consequence available to them.  That’s not all bad, and in a way, Coppola is making points (beyond the obvious and somewhat heavy-handed ones she makes about celebrity culture) that she may not intend:  the whole fascination of the Bling Ring was that they targeted celebrities, stole valuables that their victims largely got for free anyway, and, generally, didn’t even seek a profit for their stolen goods beyond using them to look gorgeous and get into the best clubs.

But that only leaves a sense of frustration, not of insight.  The sense of class and race privilege absolutely permeates the entire proceedings; if these had been poor kids (or, heaven forfend, black kids) stealing this massive a haul from the private homes of the rich and famous, there’s no chance they would have pulled such light sentences.  But since they were, essentially, the well-to-do robbing from the even more well-to-do, they coast through until the very end, parlaying their crimes into colorful résumé items.  For all its saturation in the callow lives of the young and beautiful, The Bling Ring is also curiously sexless; it plays like the opposite of a Larry Clark film, with the kids much more interested in self-documentation than self-gratification.  For all its graces (and its discovery of Katie Chang, whose sly breeziness makes her a perfect postmodern femme fatale and could be a major talent in future roles), The Bling Ring feels like a very slight effort by a talented team, and lacks the kind of bite it needs to succeed as either satire or commentary, coming across instead like a the-way-we-live-today shrug of a movie.

It’s certainly likely to leave you with confirmation of all your worst stereotypes about the upscale phonies of southern California, whose inner lives are as rich as used tissue, so if, as I did, you follow up The Bling Ring with a screening of the new Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z, you can at least have some fun imagining the entire cast being eaten by rampaging zombies.  That, at least, would be more satisfying gore than anything you see in the movie itself, a surprisingly horror-deficient horror movie that fails not from lack of ambition but from a surplus of it.  Based more or less in name only on Max Brooks’ very satisfying novel, the film jettisons its sprawling global narrative, documentarian approach, and cautionary tales about political stagnation in the face of global crises in favor of an action-stuffed story of worldwide apocalypse than ends up seeming rather puny.

World War Z went through a number of well-documented production delays, cost overruns, and conceptual stumbling blocks before it reached its final form; some critics have insisted these are not noticeable in the movie itself, but this is apologetic hogwash.  Brad Pitt’s character is placed front an center in a clear bit of ass-covering; many large-scale action sequences begin or end abruptly or seem oddly truncated; and the movie’s final sequence, featuring bits and pieces of what were obviously once huge, expensive set pieces, is the most slapdash, thrown-together thing I’ve seen in a blockbuster since Jonah Hex.  The script problems are evident in nearly every scene; characters receive little to no development, on-screen deaths happen abruptly and off-screen ones inexplicably, with nothing but Pitt’s admittedly watchable screen presence to hold everything together; and there are things referred to that we keep expecting to actually see and never do, giving the curious sensation that the characters on screen are watching a better movie than we are.

Its biggest problem, though, is that it wants to be about five different movies, and thus can’t really succeed at being one.  It wants to tell a personal story of the emotional toll of disaster, in the style of The Walking Dead, but it doesn’t have the time to spare on the relationship between Pitt and his family; it wants to be a huge big-screen disaster epic, but it’s hobbled by costs and production issues; it wants to be a terrifying cat-and-mouse zombie hunt, but getting locked into a PG-13 rating denatures this tendency (and results in a strange lack of chills, as the movie’s ‘fast zombies’ are largely indistinguishable from their prey and the lack of gore makes it look like the worst consequence of being overrun but the hordes of the undead is getting trampled in a worldwide soccer riot); and it wants to be some kind of message picture, but it hasn’t got a clue what that message should be.  (The fifth movie is an actual adaptation of World War Z, the novel, but that idea was obviously jettisoned early on.)

There are pleasures to be had in World War Z.  Pitt is highly watchable (as is Mireille Enos as his wife, in her limited screen time), and there are a few good performances (though it utterly wastes Peter Capaldi); a few of the action sequences are compelling enough, albeit abbreviated and inchoate; and the last big set piece, featuring Pitt going roguelike against a bunch of undead staffers at a nearly abandoned World Health Organization facility, is pretty exciting.  But it also coughs up one of the most egregious bits of product placement I’ve ever witnessed — one which, in all likelihood, represented money spent on a sequence we never got to see.  That kind of behind-the-scenes disconnect is obvious in just about every scene of World War Z, and is what keeps it from being the reinvigoration of a tired genre that we really need.

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