Somewhere is a tough movie to like, but it’s also tough to hate. Director Sofia Coppola captures so many sweet, tender, and quirky moments that the movie never feels as oppressive and boring as the subject matter might suggest. There is, however, something distasteful about watching the aimless life of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a disaffected and discontent movie star, especially today in the worst economy since the Second World War. One would think that Ms. Coppola would eschew another story about those poor misunderstood rich people when there are so many other issues that need attention.
Now I’m not one of those high-horse socially-conscious conveyors of guilt who scoffs at the idea that the problems of the rich and famous are insignificant compared to “regular” people, or that they have nothing significant to say about the human condition. If anyone thinks being an A-list movie star is easy, spend a few days with people chasing you and your family down every time you try to go to Target. It’s a 24-7 job and everyone wants a piece of them. However, this is ground Coppola has covered before and, unless she doesn’t have anything relevant to say about anyone who isn’t a millionaire, she should move on.
There’s nothing insightful or terribly entertaining about watching Johnny indulge in one passionless debauch after another at West Hollywood’s famed Chateau Marmont Hotel, but the addition of his sweet, but undemanding daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) certainly adds what the movie needed. And Fanning’s wonderfully sweet performance doesn’t hurt. We immediately identify a tentative familiarity, as though they are going through the moves without the experience of past father-daughter bonding. She is his daughter, but clearly has spent little time with him as he jets around the world to film and promote. Watching their cautious relationship develop has a certain charm but not enough, I’m afraid, to rescue the movie from its rigid conceit.
Coppola just doesn’t have anywhere to go with the material. (It says something about the yes-man culture of moviemaking that no one pointed out to Coppola that the opening scene in which we watch a black Ferrari zoom around a closed course in the desert in a single, mind-numbing, watch-glancing shot, could be seen as a metaphor for the pointlessness and repetitiveness of, not Johnny’s life, but Coppola’s filmmaking.) Her casual narrative becomes just as meaningless and meandering as Johnny’s life. Is that really enough to sustain a feature length movie? The characters ostensibly go through something, but nothing really happens so it isn’t clear why they go through anything at all. Johnny has an epiphany of sorts, but it isn’t clear why he has it then and not any other time in his life. Did the cheap meaningless sex and parties chalk full of plastic people lose some of its glamour for him? Why did Cleo’s presence at this time change anything?
This movie feels like those self-important European art movies of the 1950s and 1960s like Last Year at Marienbad that supposed to expose the empty shell that was (and is) modern bourgeois life. But, like Marienbad, it acts as class pornography, giving us a sample of the bourgeois pleasures while we confidently look down our noses at the emptiness of their lives. We can both marvel at and scoff at the life of the rich.. Johnny Marco’s life has to be empty and unfulfilling, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to feel secure in our less affluent lives. Sofia Coppola doesn’t tackle a more challenging avenue which would be to make Johnny not the clichéd soulless movie star, the empty sieve into which others pour all their desires, but a real person who struggles with what is expected of him and what he wants. Johnny has no personality except to be as unimposing as possible. He is like the stifled protagonist of one of those Resnais or Antonioni pictures, but those movies didn’t say anything particularly profound either.
Ms. Coppola never makes the case as to why we should care about Johnny Marco. Stephen Dorff’s performance is so low key (he seems to have been rolled out of a morgue) that moments in which we can emotionally connect aren’t there. Cleo offers the best opportunity for Johnny to do so, but she never really pushes him, until her final scene where she (sort of) breaks down over his neglect, but even that potentially meaningful moment is glossed over in favor of a flashy helicopter.
OK, so I guess that is the point Coppola is making: the glamour of fame can overshadow the things that really matter in life. But is this really something we care about? Yes, it could be, but not like this. I suppose the putatively touching interaction with his daughter, along with Johnny’s Hollywood lifestyle burnout pushes him to that epiphany I wondered about above, but by that point so little has happened that we don’t much care. He spends so much time brooding over five star food and falling asleep in the middle of oral sex that he becomes just as tedious to us as his burdensome life is to him.
Despite these reservations I can’t help but admire what Ms. Coppola did right. I love that she spurned the tired and often hackneyed narrative conventions to present a slice of life portrait of a man. I think if the man had been more interesting, less disaffected, had more personality, or a point to his life, this narrative strategy could have been more successful. (Just because he’s lost doesn’t mean he’s interesting to watch.) She also captures so many genuinely sweet moment between Johnny and his daughter Cleo. I found myself, despite all the angst I’ve described above, grinning stupidly when Johnny and Cleo share a late night gelato feast, or when they partake in an imaginary tea party at the bottom of a pool, or a lingering shot of them sunning by the pool, or Cleo carefully constructing eggs benedict for breakfast. (Don’t be so stingy with the hollandaise!)
Aside from the charming sequences between Johnny and Cleo, Coppola gives us enough of the chilling and disarming as well, like those creepy in-call pole dancers and the squeak of their flesh every time they slide down their poles, or when Johnny, when driving out of the Chateau Marmont, glides past the wreck of a sports car that plowed into the wall across the street from the hotel, an odd tribute to iconic fashion photographer Helmut Newton who died just this way in 2004.
Coppola’s aesthetic is undeniably attractive; I just wish she put it to better use here. Each sequence, seemingly as random as Johnny’s life, is lovingly thought out and executed, but in the end we are left with a sinking feeling that it doesn’t mean as much as it should. Coppola has an undeniable talent for weaving the mundane and the extraordinary, a fitting skill for a film about the life of a movie star, a person whose life is daily marked by both. But the lack of insight or compassion leaves us with the shell of a picture. What she does visually is stunning, but she doesn’t add much more than what we saw in the trailer, leaving us with the promise of an idea and a sketch of a movie.