Reviewed by James Owen
Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” opens with a fancy sports car driving round and round, on-camera and off. We do not see the driver nor understand what’s going on. The location is desolate and the sound, other than the humming engine, is muted. This goes on for several minutes, signaling that this is a METAPHOR: This film is about a character whose life rotates in an endless rhythm. In fact, this film is about a vapid, unaware movie star (played by the vapid and unaware Stephen Dorff) who ambles through life quite like that sports car. By filming such a sparse soul, Coppola no doubt wishes to comment on the secluded Hollywood lifestyle. But in doing so, she immediately creates an emotional distance she never bridges to the audience.
To say not much happens in “Somewhere” is an understatement. Movie star Johnny Marco (Dorff) stumbles around parties in his own room at the lovingly-filmed Chateau Marmont. We watch him get bored with the strippers he pays extravagantly to pole dance. We watch him smoke and drink. We watch the women in his life call him awful things. Yes, we even watch him drive that car. We even watch molding dry around his head at a make-up studio. You won’t see this on “Entourage,” mainly because that show is busy entertaining us.
What we never see is him developing emotionally or learning from his mistakes. Basically, it’s like watching Dorff play a less-charismatic version of Charlie Sheen. Most frustrating is we never understand what got this guy to this point. Coppola shows us nothing, especially in her minimal dialogue, that makes this guy appealing, let alone a superstar. And no, Coppola isn’t just showing the “real” side of this guy; we also see him at press junkets and award shows. What difference does it make if Marco is “lost” or “isolated” or whatever if we have no frame of reference? She tries to suggest some context by focusing on the cast on Marco’s arm. We are told it is from a stunt, so we are supposed to get that he’s “wounded” and “frail.” Ok, but at least with Bob Harris, Bill Murray’s aging movie star from “Lost in Translation,” we learned a few things about him through phone calls with his wife and stories around a bar. No such luxury is afforded here.
Mostly, what we learn here is that Marco is a father, whose daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is unceremoniously dumped on him by her mother (Lala Sloatman). While we observe the father-daughter relationship, we don’t get a real sense of it. The two actors have a nice, familial chemistry, but the relationship is virtually frictionless. Does having his 11-year-old daughter in tow slow him down? Coppola answers, quickly and awkwardly, no.
This, I fear, is the point Coppola is getting at. The film’s personal tone makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that “Somewhere” is Sophia Coppola telling Papa Francis how bad her childhood really was. Seriously, there’s a discussion of making films where the perceived impact on Italian-Americans are questioned, the extended trip to Rome. If this isn’t intended to be semi-autobiographical, she could be a little more coy.
Because here films are so deeply personal, Coppola makes herself controversial. She needs to understand that the farther she gets away from herself, the better her movies are. “The Virgin Suicides” still remains a highlight of last decade; a rich look at the lost innocence of girls in a sheltered world. “Lost in Translation” was a powerful study of survivors of tattered relationships coming together. Those scripts had revealing, not just sparse, dialogue and sharp visuals that felt like works of art rather exhibitionist therapy. That movie was “Marie Antoinette,” which felt like we were watching young Sofia tromping around the Zoetrope empire in Converse sneakers to overly-ironic 80’s pop songs.
Few things are more disheartening to a critic than watching a talented young filmmaker trying and failing to paint on a more epic canvass. She scales “Somewhere” back to the 8×10 level, but the film is just as clumsy. While the film appears to be about Marco, the only real insight is from Cleo (Fanning), who concludes that her parents are too aloof and that she will be all alone, despite their affluence and fame. Perhaps “Somewhere” should have focused on the girl, but Coppola was quite deliberate focusing on Marco’s failings. How can’t this be Sophia’s Portrait of the Father-Artist as a Middle Aged Man, especially when the little girl is so rational and “objective” in her observations of his character. Once you figure this out, “Somewhere” feels petty and unaccomplished. I mean, come on, Sophia: The guy is getting you money to make these movies. He even put you in “The Godfather III”!
In the end, Coppola tries to make “Somewhere” a very deep film about a very shallow person. The problem is that the characters are so static that it’s more of a visual piece than a character study. Perhaps an actor better than Dorf could have mined the screenplay better, or the film could have been more about the girl. As it stands, “Somewhere” leaves space between itself and its audience. Perhaps that’s what Sophia Coppola intended, but if you want to impact your audience, that’s somewhere you don’t want your movie to be.