Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius, Simona Ventura
Running Time: 98 min
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
With fewer and fewer stories left to tell, there's thankfully still many ways left to do it if you're skilled enough. Sophia Coppola's minimalist approach isn't for everyone, as single scene or shots can linger endlessly, making even the most patient viewers wonder if the film was edited at all. And that's the thing with mood pieces: You have to be in the mood to watch them. With Somewhere, Coppola favors the stripped down, bare bones style she employed in her three previous features but manages to drop the volume down even lower. Those who didn't care for The Virgin Suicides, Lost Translation or Marie Antoinette will find this even more frustrating but it deserves mention alongside them, which is to say it's very good and will likely age well. And like those, it's equally brilliant and infuriating at the same time, its flaws as endearing as its strengths. Think of it as Lost in Translation meets The Wrestler meets The Brown Bunny meets an art house version of Entourage or Californication. While she's yet to release a work as impressive as peers like Fincher, P.T. Anderson, or Aronofsky and her output's more polarizing, she's been nothing if not consistent, extracting unexpected career peak performances from the likes of Kirsten Dunst (twice), Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. She does it again here this time with another even more unlikely suspect and again proves few are as capable of using visuals and music in a movie as effectively. All-around, it's very similar--some would say too similar--to her previous efforts, but that's fine by me.
The film follows, at least for the first couple of minutes, a black Ferrrari as it continuously laps a racetrack. Its driver is famous actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), whose solitary excursions in that car represent the only forward momentum in his life. Hauling himself up at the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where he's nursing an arm injury and doing press interviews for his latest action film with an unhappy co-star (Michelle Monaghan), we can assume from their brief, awkward interactions, he slept with at some point. Despite having booze, pills and women at his beckoned call at seemingly every hour of the day and enjoying unparalleled professional success, he's an emotional zombie giving the term "going through the motions" a whole new meaning. Bored, absent and detached, he actually falls asleep twice during his interactions with women, the first time almost inexcusably during a twin strippers' pole dancing routine set to the Foo Fighters' "My Hero" that's so compellingly, brilliantly awful it could probably wake a corpse. The unexpected arrival of his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) changes his plans, as her mother, with whom he shares custody, disappears without giving an indication as to when or if she'll return. With little choice but to bond with her, they grow closer and he must decide whether this lonely, empty lifestyle is really for him.
The startling similarities between this and Coppola's previous two films won't be lost on anyone. Once again, she returns to the central theme of loneliness and isolation in the face of fame that characterized Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. Admittedly, the hard knocks that come with being rich and famous isn't exactly the kind of topic that gets audiences on your side, but that's not her job. If this is what she knows and wants to explore then by all means she should. If she didn't actually explore it that would be a problem but this isn't a carbon copy of Lost in Translation, despite them both sharing a hotel setting and the plot of a depressed actor at a crossroads. There's actually a lot less going on here. From the opening scene right up until the end, not a lot is said, but somehow you're keyed in to exactly what's going on from moment to moment. The film's style encourages its characters, the visuals and the two central performances plenty of room to breathe, very often mimicking the aimless, trance-like state of its protagonist. Yet despite being told nothing and having to figure out this guy for ourselves, it's a strangely pressure-less experience to sit through, offering relief from the burden of being inundated by too many details. If Coppola's an expert at anything, it's letting the visuals, music and acting speak for itself. Unafraid of letting scenes linger past the point they typically should (or we're used to) to convey a mood, a practice session at an ice rink goes on twice as long as you'd expect and is all the more memorable for it.
Stephen Dorff is the perfect empty vessel, as Coppola tries to do for him what Aronofsky did for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (this film's working title could have easily been The Actor) by taking an actor's personality (or maybe lack of it) and wrapping everything else around it to fit. Maybe that wasn't the intention but Dorff's passivity is so convincing it could have fooled me. It's only speculation how much personal experience he channeled to get inside Johnny's head and while Dorff's career or life, from what we know, isn't in the dire shape Rourke's was, an artsy, meditative character study still isn't something we'd usually associate with the B-list star of Blade and Cecil B. Demented. He ends up being pretty good at it. Elle Fanning (now a threat to surpassing her older sister as the family's breadwinner) gives Cleo a poise and intelligence beyond her years while still maintaining the naivety of a little girl faking obliviousness to her father's severe shortcomings, chipping away at his indifference. She knows what's up, and how Fanning subtly shows it is what makes the performance. The final scene is a keeper and well-earned, telling us all we need to know while leaving enough behind for us to fill in the rest.
Movies like Somewhere are the ones to watch out for because they seem at first to be inert, or worse, about "nothing," but have this way of staying with you because they end up being about much more than just their plot, which in this case is familiar. I hate judging a director's current work against their previous efforts but it's almost impossible to view this film in any way but through the prism of her others, completing a quadrilogy of loneliness that started with The Virgin Suicides. Strangely, despite coming really close, she hasn't made a movie as compelling as that one again, but is instead effectively carving out career that builds on the themes she introduced in it in memorably divergent ways. Say what what you will about Coppola, but she's as one of the few filmmakers working today whose new releases are, for better or worse, accompanied by an "event" feeling because of their distinctive style. Somewhere meets that expectation, which is really the most that could have been asked of it.