Sofia Coppola's now conceived as well as directed three films about life in the bubble of material and artistic privilege: Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and, her latest, Somewhere. If you recoil at the mere thought of watching drama about a pampered fictive movie star's everyday discontent, Somewhere may not win you over, despite its wryly observational tone and deft steering around obviousness. But I personally like Somewhere much more than Translation, albeit less than Marie (—if only because Stephen Dorff is not nearly as interesting in blank-slate repose as Kirsten Dunst.) He's very good, though, playing what Stephen Dorff was once expected to become—a generic handsome superstar, a la Brad Pitt before he learned (quite recently) to act.
As “Johnny Marco”—referencing Brad's early-days vacuous-star-injoke Johnny Suede?—Dorff is convincingly vacuous, earnest, uneducated, immature, hard-bodied, nice and plain lucky. He's a half-formed human who had the mixed luck to be pronounced fabulously successful when he hadn't begun to define himself beyond a vague yearning for attention. He's the genial empty space we stare into for all of Somewhere's 97 minutes.
It's to Coppola's credit that that duration is at times beguiling. The main reason is that Somewhere's primary focus is on the relationship between Johnny Marco and his pubescent daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who is miraculously not a child-of-famous-divorce screwup—indeed she's rock-stable despite having two estranged, self-absorbed parents. (A briefly-seen Michelle Monaghan plays the former Mrs. Marco, whose ambiguous retreat forces on Johnny a couple weeks' sole child custody.)
Cleo is a precocious yet guileless 11-year-old who can look like a child one moment and the stunner she'll develop into the next. You can tell she's had practice being more responsible than the unreliable adults around her, yet that hasn't hardened into brattiness (at least not yet). She's not so spoilt she can't express innocent delight at the often crazy perks that come dad's way—like the private swimming pool in their hotel suite when he takes her on a European promotional junket.
And against all odds, standard-issue hunk Johnny is a good dad, protective and doting. (It's the people around him who need reminding his playboy lifestyle is suspended whenever Cleo is around.) The charming heart of Somewhere is those scenes in which father and daughter are simply enjoying each other's company, the performers so natural in their rapport one imagines they were allowed a fair amount of improvisational free rein. When Johnny is being Cleo's dad, he is decent, kind and fulfilled without even realizing it—the very opposite of those dark moments when he drunk-dials his ex to confess he's “nothing...not even a person.” Between movies and custody dates, he explores that existential void as a semi-permanent resident of the Chateau Marmont—the film industry's Chelsea Hotel—whose halls seem littered with fame-whore groupies available on a moment's notice. Sometimes Johnny comes “home” to discover an already in-progress party he's “hosting” without even needing to be there.
Bored senseless, lacking the depth to amuse himself otherwise, Johnny fulfills fantasies most men would kill for, but which frequently put him to sleep. In surreally funny sequences he hires not one but two sets of pole-dancing twins to perform in his bedroom. (Yes, they evidently make portable stripper poles.) If Somewhere achieves nothing else, it nails the spiritual erosion of constant, effortless indulgence—when everyone is willing to do anything for you, any time, just for the celebrity-contact high.
It begins with Johnny driving his racecar—yet another toy for the boy who has it all—in an endless circle, and ends with a fuzzy stab at catharsis that suggests a failure of nerve. Coppola has made a very quote unquote European movie in which “nothing happens” (except, of course, life), so when at the last minute she tries to orchestrate a transcendent leap for Johnny, it doesn't even seem to convince her, let alone us. The film's bemused slightness to that point is also its badge of authenticity. When we're asked to take Johnny too seriously, a false note creeps in.
Like Marie Antoinette, Somewhere is an expensively austere film that draws back the wizard-curtain to reveal banality behind purportedly fabulous lifestyles. It's a truth you might prefer not to know, even as Sofia Coppola succeeds in making it interesting.
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