REVIEW: Somewhere [2010]

“Hey Johnny. You’re having a party.”

Ever since her debut film—a favorite of mine—The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola has spiraled into a mode of minimalist storytelling. Receiving raves from critics and a Best Screenplay Oscar for her sophomore effort Lost in Translation, I began to wonder what I was missing. It was a good film, but a transcendent piece of cinema introducing us to a new master of the medium? I didn’t even think it was her best film, let alone all that. Perhaps it is in the simplicity where her genius shines and maybe I just can’t wrap my head around it as her newest work, Somewhere, takes minimalism to a new level. Not only sparse on spoken words, this look into the empty life of a hard-living actor is almost devoid of plot as well. The term on the tip of my tongue is self-indulgent, but I feel a large sense of shame to say it. Once again, there is something here, some iota of brilliance beneath the surface trying to break free. After watching the trailer I thought this might finally be the one I ‘got’, the one turning Coppola’s potential into a reality. Alas, it is not.

Filmed on location, mostly at the Chateau Marmont—where actors go for benders or even death; it was on my morbidly constructed tragedy list of places to visit last time I was in Hollywood—you know the result will be either the inevitable destruction of Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco or his redemption of soul. Through the first 85 or so minutes in the 97-minute runtime, which one is completely unknown. A slice of life look into his day-to-day activities, nothing really happens to evolve his character at all. He is a fan of sex, enjoys fast driving in his Mustang, partakes in huge parties, (even when unplanned by him but in his room), and does the press tours as his publicist requests. His existence consists of flirty smiles with attractive women, either leading to a romp in the bedroom or ending to find another mark; random texts from an anonymous sender swearing and hostile, quite possibly multiple senders considering his actions; and visits from his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), the only person able to genuinely light up his otherwise blank indifference.

Somewhere is a series of over-long takes of monotonous activities, strung together to give us a look into this Hollywood cliché. And that is why it falls flat for me. All one has to do is go online or watch a couple seconds of any 24/7 news outlet using celebrity gossip as a means to draw in viewers and know the stereotype like the back of your hand. Overdose, incarceration, death—they aren’t tragic outcomes of the lives of people in the spotlight; they are punchlines. We watch like we would a car crash, to revel in the implosion, gleefully entertained knowing all we have to do is turn away and go back to our ‘normal’ lives. Because of this, I watched with a constant impatience, waiting for something to happen that never does. A sportscar speeds in and out of frame for almost five minutes to start the film; Cleo shows us her talent with an extended ice routine, her culinary skills in the kitchen for breakfast, and her ability to hold her breath underwater; and Johnny falls asleep watching a pole dance routine set to The Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” or with his face between the legs of a random girl. His life isn’t all that exciting.

And maybe that is exactly what Coppola wants us to think. Maybe she is chiding us for our ease to judge and dismiss celebrities as spoiled brats unworthy of our time on a human level. Even when tasked to watch his daughter once his ex falls off the map without a timetable for return, telling Johnny to make sure and drop her off for camp in a week, his lifestyle isn’t altered. Sure he is finally not alone, taking her with him to Italy and spending every waking minute together, but the involuntary urges for women and entertainment remain. He’s across the hall with a young woman while his daughter awaits his return outside the room door. He waits for Cleo to fall asleep before sneaking out to let a beautiful Italian in for some fun, letting her stay for breakfast, ignorant to the looks given by his child. It’s been too long a journey through the vapid arena of Hollywood to let the responsibility of a daughter change anything. They spend their days lying in the sun and playing Wii or Rock Band with a friend, Chris Pontius’s Sammy.

Theirs is a privileged life devoid of any true meaning, reliant on appearances and constantly ignoring what matters. Even so, Johnny doesn’t earn the hopeful quasi-redemption at the end. If anything, I made a mental bet on how long before his newfound clarity gives way to vanity once more. I respect his geniality towards the media and fans throughout, but then he complains about paparazzi following him in a black SUV; I idolize his love for his daughter, taking her to see the world and have everything her heart desires, but then he constantly pushes her aside when selfish pleasures arise. You want to believe in his humanity, but he doesn’t make it easy. That’s high praise for the performance, though—Dorff is magnificent, for all intents and purposes, playing himself. You see the pain behind the pleasure, the emptiness of his life full of material goods and random girls but missing anything tangible besides the family he disappoints. Fanning, too, excels at being a young girl trapped in the life of fame, herself growing up surrounded by her sister Dakota’s success, needing to find her own place.

These two actors make you care enough to finish and the stunning visual compositions distract from the silent passages of innocuous activity. But, in the end, what actually happens? Once the credits began, backed by a Phoenix song, I was completely detached. There was no sense of contemplation or wonder at what I saw. It ended and thus ended my connection to the material. Perhaps it is my fault for being unable to look deeper, but maybe it’s Coppola’s problem for giving us a project that lives on the surface. By the time we finally care about these two, it’s too late. I feel as though there is a prequel and sequel missing with pertinent information necessary to understand why Somewhere is here for our viewing. And that’s where the self-indulgent label comes back. Being in the industry as Coppola is, she feels the absent beginning and end is common knowledge; they all go through the isolation and trials of fame. But, for me, an outsider, I only saw great acting, beautiful cinematography from Harris Savides, and a killer soundtrack. It seems to be a trend with Sofia and I’m starting to think her genius rests with her peers; we just can’t relate.

Somewhere 5/10 | ★ ★

[1] Stephen Dorff (left) and Elle Fanning (right) star in Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
[2] Stephen Dorff (left) Elle Fanning (right) star in Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Franco Biciocchi
[3] Stephen Dorff stars as Johnny Marco in Focus Features’ Somewhere (2010)

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