I never thought I’d say this, but Sofia Coppola and Michael Bay’s new films have a lot in common, well, as far as I can see from the respective trailers. Watching the trailers for Coppola’s hyped The Bling Ring and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain respectively, there seems to be little thematic difference between the two, albeit the latter’s penchant for explosions. Both movies are about a disenfranchised middle class everyman plotting to steal from the rich–to enrich themselves. This is what the 99% have become.
While The Bling Ring is a dramatic retelling of the infamous gang of teenagers who terrorised Hollywood, breaking into the houses of the rich and famous to steal from them, Pain & Gain tells the story of three hopeful underdogs who steal from a comically douchey millionaire, but quintessentially, both are about the same thing: those in the middle tier of society, fed up with the status quo, forcibly taking what they can from the undeserving rich in order to live that high life themselves. The Occupy movement should be turning in its grave by now. The Robin Hood mentality that essentially inspired the 99% to throw a collective hissy fit in Zuccotti Park nearly two years ago has turned on its head, and the contemporary iteration of its preliminary goal–to tax the rich proportionately in order to fairly distribute resources across the community–has taken a decidedly selfish turn.
“If you’re willing to do work, you can have anything; that’s what makes the U.S of A great,” declares Mark Whalberg’s voiceover in the Pain & Gain trailer, which overtly addresses themes of wealth allocation and the deservedness of it. However, the American Dream, for the most part, is no longer an ally, but a traitor, and stripped of the accepting patience and melancholic fortitude of a Loman-esque character in chasing that dream, our “I want an Oopma Loopma now!” mentality is reflected keenly in both trailers. Both films reject the collective consciousness to embrace the self-important individual in our increasing culture of instant gratification. In the rag to riches story where hard work and zealous belief can make you Jay-Z, the individual interest, at the cost of anyone else’s, now reigns supreme in a way that is distinctly darker than it was intended to when we first started nattering on about about the 99%.
From the aspirational bent at the start of the trailer for Pain & Gain, Whalberg’s voice over takes a trip to the dark side, with the revelation that he’s been, “Kept down by people who cheated to get where they are.” The answer? To also cheat to get there. The same goes in The Bling Ring, as we see the image of Paris HIlton, the epitome of stolen fame, and a face that’s become synonymous with the birth of “celebrity for celebrity’s sake” and the advent of reality entertainment. In both scenarios, the acquisition of wealth–of which the acquirers have convinced themselves the owner is unworthy of and that they themselves are, as the “oppressed”, more deserving of, despite the callous illegality and force with which they took it–means little more than to spend it frivolously; paradoxically, in the same manner as it was being spent before as beast begets beast.
There seems to be little noble left in the quest for wealth, and I think this is what both movies will grapple with; that now, we’ve not only become so self interested as to discard the interests of society at large, but so conceited and misled by popular culture that there is a genuine belief that material things can just be taken instead of earned. And now that the early 00’s buzz of everyone snatching for their 15 minutes of fame is over, we’ve figured out that our “moment” is recurring and infinite (thanks, Internet), so we’re just trying to figure out how to those 15 minutes into a fortune, and a hard and fast one at that. Spring Breakers has already provided the (at points in the film, nauseatingly and artlessly obvious) moral that the grand myth of the American Dream has been bastardized by the desires of blinkered, ruthless individualism, and I wonder where and if these forthcoming releases will find redemption.
It’s unclear from Pain & Gain’s trailer whether the perverted Robin Hood fable will yield a lesson learned for its protagonists (although the title is a giveaway that there will be “pain”), and while we already know The Bling Ring ends in retribution as the offending teenagers were caught and tried, it will be interesting to see if Coppola’s film provides a moral compass for the legend she and the media circus have created around the robberies. What I do know is that the mirroring of themes in these two films, by two directors for whom the polarity of the auter’s stamp could not be more disparate, has redefined what it means to be an anti-consumerist in a consumer obsessed society. It’s Fight Club nihilism for a generation of miscreants whose chosen brand of vigilante justice has less to do with anarchy or levelling the playing field and more to do with swimming in their private pool of Benjamins.