A Hollywood daughter's daddy issues
By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sofia Coppola doesn’t tell conventional stories, and her characters often remain opaque and cipherlike. Rather than satisfying third-act payoffs, she prefers indeterminate, fuzzy what-ifs.
But since making her directorial debut in 1999 with “The Virgin Suicides,” Coppola has mastered the most difficult aspect of filmmaking, without which a director cannot be truly great. Her ace in the hole — the thing she’s better at than any of her colleagues in Hollywood or on its indie margins — is atmospherics. No filmmaker does mood better than Coppola, whether it’s adolescent longing (“The Virgin Suicides”), jet lag (“Lost in Translation”) or extravagant unexamined privilege (“Marie Antoinette”). In “Somewhere,” Coppola turns her observant, forgiving eye to the world she’s been closest to all along: Hollywood stardom in all its narcissism, pampered decadence and jaded anomie.
The opening shot serves both as tone-setter and leitmotif, as a high-end sports car goes around and around a dusty track. The driver is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a hot actor who has little else to do but drive, take calls from his publicist, party with his entourage at the shabby-chic Chateau Marmont and pay pole-dancing twins to provide private entertainment. The only interruption to Johnny’s mundane sybaritic pursuits arrives by way of his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who visits him on weekends.
Johnny and Cleo enjoy an easy, unforced rapport — even if he’s surprised to learn she’s been taking ice-skating lessons for three years — but he gets more than he bargained for suddenly when her mother announces he’ll have to keep her longer than a few days. His self-indulgent routine of zero commitment blown, Johnny takes Cleo with him on a publicity trip to Italy and other everyday excursions of the rich and aimless, realizing along the way that she might be the only tether he has to anything real.
By now, most viewers know whether they’re on Coppola’s wavelength or not — honk if you found “Lost in Translation” insufferably pretentious, come sit by me if you found it funny, lyrical and poetic — and “Somewhere” can be profitably avoided or eagerly embraced on that basis. Every movie has its “click” moments, when some moment or detail either sucks you in or fatally breaks the spell. Coppola's details are all spot-on; in this case, the bottle of Propecia on Johnny’s sink signals that we’re in good hands as we’re shown a world usually shrouded in paparazzi flashes and management-created myth.
As with every Coppola tone poem, "Somewhere" is laced with moments of pure loveliness — Cleo swirling on the ice in a dreamy pastel-colored cloud, or playing Guitar Hero with Johnny on an idle afternoon — and snippets of knowing humor. The inane questions Johnny entertains at a press junket, which range from his workout routine to post-global colonialism, are depressingly accurate (take it from someone who’s asked them). Later, when he sits with his head encased in goop for an hour to make a latex mold of his face, the scene is played both for its comic absurdity and, when he sees the results, intimations of mortality. (A pitch-perfectly random scene featuring a cameo in the Chateau elevator is played for absurdity, period.)
Like "The American" earlier this year, "Somewhere" is best appreciated as a 1970s art film made by a time-traveler in Coppola’s body. Neither film features much of a story, both unfold in long, languid takes, and both create indelible portraits of men changing their minds. Most filmmakers would represent that journey with windy speeches or showy breakdown scenes, but Coppola does it the hard way, by simply depicting Johnny navigating his environment, making choices and behaving accordingly. "Don't tell, show" has been the writer's imperative for generations; Coppola takes that edict to its most visual and satisfying extremes.
Contains sexual content, nudity and profanity.