Thursday, December 23, 2010


The wistful, dreamlike Somewhere starts with a man going in circles.  And for a good, long (some may find way too long) while the film appears to be doing just that.  This being the fourth feature from Sofia Coppola (following The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette), there are a few staples that one may expect, including the penchant for indulgent, artsy preciousness and a general lack of plot.  All this is true of Somewhere, in some way I feel it's Coppola x 4, but for the patient, observant moviegoer who likes to linger in complete sensory filmmaking, there's much to admire, and quite possibly a deeper subtext here than in her previous movies.  I say all this as long admiring fan of Ms. Coppola, and make no mistake, a conversion process for the non-devoted isn't likely here in this drippy, flaky, and relaxed ode to Hollywood, and especially the Chateau Marmont, a hangout of the hip and rich on Los Angeles' famed Sunset Strip.  Coppola was allowed access to film at the hotel (which has a reputation for catering to the famous; one of it's most notorious claims to fame was when John Belushi died of an overdose while residing), and while the it's certainly not the coup of being granted permission to film on the grounds of Versailles (which Coppola did in Marie Antoinette), it marks a far more personal filmmaking ground for the gifted writer\director.

The star of the picture is Stephen Dorff, who has the grizzled unshaven face of a forgotten matinee idol perhaps long past his prime.  He plays Johnny Marco, the matinee idol long past his prime lodging and hanging in the hotel, not doing much of anything.  We follow his daily ritual at the start of the film, which involves getting threatening text messages from an anonymous caller, drinking beer and chain-smoking, casual skirt chasing.  He ends most days watching two blonde pole dancers prance around his room-- they provide their own poles.  When asked at a party by an interloper what his acting methods are, he says he doesn't have any, and that's the feeling come across by Dorff's performance.  He isn't quite acting, he just is, and with the utmost minimalism, he carries Somewhere quite beautifully, going along for the sparkly little mood piece that Coppola has so tenderly rendered.

The first reel, I would suggest, is going to be hardest to sit through, especially for the audience not completely embracing of Coppola's consummate style and control.  It's largely dialogue-free, and more of a series of vignettes than a cohesive beginning.  What's successful about it is in slowly unraveling the hermetic, melancholy, albeit very pampered existence (or lack thereof) of it's leading man.  Whether living the life of solitary leisure at the Marmont, or driving around Los Angeles in his nifty black sports car, he always appears trapped in something, including the obligatory press for his latest movie, which while no details are given about the nature of the film itself, the general sense is Johnny's not to pleased with it.  What drives in the movie is a slow and thoughtful reveal of his daughter Cleo (played with disarming grace by Elle Fanning.)  Cleo who is perhaps just as hermetically sealed as Johnny with her regimented ice staking lessons, ballet, and upcoming summer camp, is introduced signing her father's arm cast (his injury stems from doing his own movie stunts.)

Through a small bit of plot contrivance (it's really Coppola's first, so she should be forgiven), Cleo is locked in to spend more time with dad, after mom abruptly leaves for a while to go through "stuff."  This is meat of Somewhere, watching the bond between father and daughter develop for perhaps the first time in these characters lives.  They rock out to Guitar Hero, and have underwater tea parties, jet off to Italy so Johnny can receive silly prize (in a scene that nearly as witty and ridiculous as Bill Murray's Japanese talk show appearance in Lost in Translation.)  For a film that is both an inside Hollywood folk tale and meditative father\daughter love story, credit must be given to Coppola, who never goes into bitter satire or schmaltzy, overly sentimental territory.  And while, I would suggest that Somewhere is far from a thinker's film, one must wonder who the filmmaker more identifies with: before becoming an Oscar-winning writer\director, Coppola herself was seen as a party girl, a girl famous for being famous, hanger on at places like the Chateau Marmont, possibly living an overly privileged, shallow Hollywood lifestyle (Johnny), or as the daughter of a movie icon (Francis Ford Coppola), being jetted around, possibly without much of a substantial rapport. 

Either way, in some levels, Somewhere might be her fullest achievement as filmmaker to date, and potentially her most experimental.  The dialogue is even more minimal here than ever before, making each line reading stand out more, carefully and delicately written, by turns throwaway, witty and sad.  The score is almost always integral and playing directly in the scene itself, without heavy orchestration, and a restraint to Coppola's past penchant for indie-pop songs-- the few here are courtesy of the French band Phoenix.  In truth, it's easily her most naturalistic film; just as Johnny Marco doesn't have a method to his acting, it appears like Coppola is really going for the fly-in-the-wall experience here more so than before, and more times than not, it actually works.  The small comedic beats are also effective-- a sequence at a press junket with Michelle Monaghan is my favorite; another scene where Cleo explains the plot of the Twilight books to her dad is nifty as well.  Of course none of the this would work with the easy-going, natural rapport of Dorff and Fanning, who succeed in making characters that feel like they started way before the first shot and will end long after the last one.

I suppose the best quality of Somewhere, the one that makes it it's own, unique artful film, the one I'm sure Coppola intended to make (her director of photography, Harris Savidas deserves much praise as well) is that the simple, delicate finale is probably where most Hollywood hacks would start their movie.  That she's a filmmaker more interested in the human emotional journey, but stopping right before the grand epiphany takes place in the central character makes us question, but hopeful that they will get there.  And that graceful subtlety, along with the beatific imagery makes me hopeful in the spirit of American independent filmmaking.  A-

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