Sofia Coppola’s Lyrical ‘Somewhere’ Nearly Finds Meaning in Nothing

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CHICAGO – Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” is her most lyrical film, a work that feels not unlike Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” or “Elephant” in its liberal use of long takes, huge gaps in dialogue, and real-time scenes that seem to go nowhere. It is a minimalist mood piece and that mood is the melancholy that comes with the realization that you’ve accomplished very little of real significance and your daily routine is nothing more than varying cycles of self-fulfillment.

The film opens with an actor brilliantly-named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) driving around in circles on a track — the metaphor for his life and the way it’s book-ended by the final shots is impossible to miss. Shortly after that open, he falls down the stairs and injures himself. Bed-ridden in the Chateau Marmont, he does next to nothing with his days, drinking, hiring pole dancers, drinking some more, smoking, and drinking some more. The only breaks in his life of lavish tedium come courtesy of his lovely daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who visits him and seems to be something of a reminder to him that the rest of his life is totally vacuous.

Photo credit: Focus Features

The description above might leave the false impression that “Somewhere” is about a partying movie star (and on some level it is) but Coppola has not glamorized the life of the spoiled celebrity in any way. This is not a movie about the “fun” or even the dangers of a life where everything is handed to you on a silver platter. It is about the monotony of a life without much concern; one in which choice of groupie for the night is often the toughest of the day. And yet it is also not a condemnation of the spoiled celebrity either. Coppola isn’t making a broad statement about the pitfalls of fame, merely presenting a period of life for a man approaching or in middle-age who realizes that his days are somewhat devoid of typical human behavior. To use the title, he’s not really anywhere.

While there are more than enough elements of “Somewhere” to like, it is ultimately a bit too shallow for its own good. And I don’t mean the word the way it’s usually thrown around. This is not surface-level narcissism and the film should be praised for avoiding what it could have been, but Coppola stretches minimalism to the point where I’m not sure she really does anything at all. “Somewhere” features a number of strong alternative genre music choices, many of which are heard in their entirety, and it’s somewhat fascinating to look at the film in light of her others (“Lost in Translation” also took part almost entirely in a hotel and was also about being disconnected while the Chateau Marmont is as close to a castle out of “Marie Antoinette” as one is going to find in the States), but Coppola pushes the “blank slate” concept a bit too far, going for Antonioni or, more recently, Van Sant, but just barely missing the way those filmmakers found dramatic resonance in minimalism.

It’s through no fault of her actors. Dorff gives probably the best performance of his career, perfectly embodying a man realizing that he doesn’t have the road map for the next chapter of his life. The actor clearly brings a bit of his own experience at junkets, in makeup chairs, and in the lazy hours of semi-fame in between shoots, and the added fact that this “future star” never quite fulfilled on his promise or talent in the real world adds a dose of melancholy. There are numerous scenes in which Dorff has to basically act like a variation on himself, which is harder to do believably than you might think, and he’s never less than believable.

Photo credit: Focus Features

Then there’s Elle. The Fanning sisters continue to be two of the most-interesting young actors working today — Dakota was great earlier this year in “The Runaways” and now Elle matches her with a wonderfully-subtle performance. This is a girl who completely loves her father but Fanning also adds a subtle layer in that I believe she’s starting to realize that her dad doesn’t have much to offer beyond someone with whom to play “Guitar Hero.” In many of the scenes between Fanning, Dorff, and “Jackass” star Chris Pontius, it might be hard to determine who’s the most mature in the room.

Once again, don’t worry that this is another cliched tale of a daughter who out-matures her man-child father. There’s nothing cliched about “Somewhere.” Coppola has too light a hand for that and Dorff and Fanning are subtle. If anything, they’re too subtle. When does a filmmaker’s attempt to dramatize an internal struggle reach the breaking point? Can a movie do so little dramatically that it does nothing at all? I’m all for avoiding cliche or melodrama, but I felt like “Somewhere” was missing the emotional weight of something like “Lost in Translation” as Coppola tried so hard to avoid the potential traps of her story that she approached stasis.

It may not seem like it but “Somewhere” is actually a very risky, complex project. How do you dramatize the story of a man realizing he has no real drama outside of some harassing text messages? While I don’t adore the final film, we need more filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, directors willing to take chances like “Somewhere.”

“Somewhere” stars Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning. It was written and directed by Sofia Coppola. It was released in Chicago on December 22nd, 2010. It is rated R and runs 98 minutes. content director Brian Tallerico

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