There is a scene in I'm Alan Partridge in which our hero must pretend that the home of a fan is actually his own.
He offers two TV executives he wants to impress a tour, despite never having been there himself. This is the lounge, he says, revealing a room with a single chair and a painting of a near-naked woman reclining in front of a Harley. Then he opens the door to the next room, which turns out to be plastered with posters of himself, customised T-shirts, blown-up autographs, a lifesize model, personalised bunting. The execs flee, frightened as to the kind of mind that could conceive of, let alone inhabit, such a shrine to self-love.
One can only imagine their horror faced with the house of Paris Hilton as seen in Sofia Coppola's indulgent study of a group of kids who robbed celebrity Hollywood mansions in 2008-09. Should you choose to take a tour of Paris's pad, you let yourself in with the key beneath the mat, go past the parrot, mind the monkey and are greeted by a gaggle of images of the owner, eyeballing you seductively. They're silkscreened on to cushion covers and they pout out from a thousand framed magazine covers. There is no need for iron-on name tags here; Hilton's signature is embossed on every bag and shoe and perfume bottle as far as the eye can see. This does not, it has to be said, make her belongings a lot less nickable.
For the characters of The Bling Ring, Hilton's boudoir is just another upmarket mall, a place for partying and posing, then walking out without paying. This is how the real-life perpetrators treated a clutch of homes of the stars – Lindsay Lohan, Miranda Kerr, Megan Fox – whose style they liked but whose tastes they lacked the cash to mimic legitimately. They checked they were out of town via the internet; worked out the address the same way.
The kicker, of course, is that those scenes set in Hilton HQ (the kids returned on multiple occasions as so bounteous was Paris's swag that she didn't realise it was being pinched) were actually shot in her real-life residence. Hilton even has a cameo in an early scene in a nightclub; likewise, Coppola's frequent lead Kirsten Dunst. The teens get a thrill from dancing if not with, then at least in proximity to the stars. They're not the only ones.
Some have congratulated Coppola for securing Hilton's involvement. This, they say, is what makes the film such a sophisticated and slippery proposition. After all, the director grew up a version of what these kids aspired to be, and much of her previous work worried at the fame game. The Virgin Suicides (1999) was about sisters who find posthumous celebrity; Lost in Translation (2003) and Somewhere (2010) invited us to sympathise with the star in the lonesome hotel suite; Marie-Antoinette (2006) was a Hollywood fable in the robes of revolutionary history. The Bling Ring, therefore, must be a classily self-reflexive inside take on a Vanity Fair exposé.
It is not. Rather, this is an inside job: a Tinseltown stitch-up that exonerates all involved by understanding the plight of the crimes in terms of simple celeb worship. They are just confused youngsters, explains Coppola. Lines of dialogue are spliced directly – and sympathetically – from their testimonials, key among them the idea that an A-list lifestyle is something "everyone kind of wants". Far from meaning that the victims of these robberies are short-changed by Coppola's indulgence (the camera trails the teens devotedly, the cinematic equivalent of an endless selfie), it actually acts as yet another ad. By reiterating the desirability of starry clobber, Coppola is pushing positive brand reinforcement. If you didn't want a pair of Paris Hilton wedges before, you might now. (Coppola, incidentally, has her own fashion range, Milkfed, sold exclusively in Japan.)
The other thing that turns what might have been an underdog heist yarn into an ode to minted Tinseltown is the casting of Emma Watson as one of the blingringleaders. This is too neat a coup to not feel distracting, and Watson's well-toned twit is afforded excess airtime, leaving the lesser – and potentially more interesting – members of the gang with insufficient space for their motives to be heard.
Coppola's dialogue is remorselessly authentic in its inanity, and this blankness runs deep in what finally feels a shallow film about shallow people. When there are flashes of satire they are faint and rose-tinted, fangs filed into photogenic stumps. It's not all rote: the way these girls view men as assets, even as accessories, feels fresh, and the cinematography – courtesy of the late Harris Savides – is beautiful; likewise Richard Beggs's pitch-perfect sound design. Faux globes you think might be moons but are in fact street lamps cast a sickly glow. The chirp of cicadas is so regular it could be electronic. When even the veracity of ambience is hard to call, distinguishing between the bona fide star and the copycat becomes yet harder; maybe even less necessary.
Yet it's impossible not to think that this story might have been better served either by documentary or by a director who has experienced the view peering in as well as looking out. Sometimes the knock-off can feel less phoney than the original.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Dave Nicoll