Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere opens with a drawn out shot of a lonely desert road. A black sports car zooms into view, turns a corner, disappears, and after a few seconds, reappears and does the same thing over again. The driver is traveling in circles. This symbolically introduces us to Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a Hollywood actor living a life that goes nowhere other than back in on itself. Holed up in a room in West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, we find a man who drinks too much, smokes too much, and knows a few too many women. Judging by a scene where he falls asleep as twin strippers do a pole dance in his bedroom, it seems he’s reached the point at which being a bad boy is no longer fun. It’s just empty.
He occasionally gets visits from his eleven-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), and while they’re not as close as they should be, they always manage to have a decent time together. Out of the blue, Cleo’s mother (Lala Sloatman) calls Johnny and tells him that she needs a little time to herself. She will not elaborate on this, although it’s clear that this so-called time to herself will not include her daughter. The time Johnny and Cleo spend together initially plays like two friends goofing off during a sleepover, but over time, more meaningful moments develop; there’s no sweeping score, nor is there any emotional breakthrough that ends with a tearful hug, but there is a quiet, solemn sense that they deeply enjoy each other’s company.
There’s also the sense that, through his daughter, Johnny has something to live for. Without her, his life is a meaningless loop of parties, premieres, and press conferences. If he ever was into the Los Angeles celebrity scene, he almost certainly isn’t now. The sad thing is, most of his actions indicate that he doesn’t know how to live any other way. Even the time he spends with Cleo is augmented by indulgences most of us can never hope to have access to, including helicopter rides, room service, and limo escorts. There’s a moment late in the film where he says something to Cleo as she prepares to be driven to camp; although I had no doubt that he meant what he said, the fact that his words were all but drowned by an idling helicopter and the downdraft is sadly telling.
Somewhere is the Sofia Coppola film I’ve been waiting for, and now that it has been released, I’m finally ready to forgive her Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. At last, I can see beneath the layers and understand what she’s trying to tell me. She weaves a subdued but resonant tale about those who seem to have everything and yet have nothing, about those who go through the motions but have no idea who they really are. It’s said the story is partially inspired by her early days as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. I have no way of knowing how true this is, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter; it’s thoughtful, intelligent, and touching, and that should be enough for anyone.
One of her more interesting approaches is to let visuals do the explaining rather than dialogue. There are scenes in which she lets the camera linger for a while on minor events; some moments are precious while others are pointless. An example of the former: Cleo practices her ice-skating as Johnny sits in the bleachers looking at his Blackberry, while another has Johnny sitting on a couch in a darkened, quiet room drinking a beer. Most of these scenes have little to no spoken words; the film’s first fifteen and a half minutes are essentially those of a silent movie. In a lesser film, we’d be inundated with sentimental sermons about how Johnny hasn’t been the man he should have been and how, from now on, he’ll always be there for Cleo. But this isn’t a lesser film. Everything that’s said – more importantly, everything that’s not said – is completely within the realm of possibility.
Another interesting approach is the use of symbolism, which is mostly in service of statements regarding celebrity. There’s a scene in which Johnny has a cast made of his head in a makeup studio. After the makeup people leave the room to let the alginate solidify, the camera zooms in ever so slowly; apart from Johnny breathing heavily, no other sound is heard. Is this line of work suffocating him? When the scene cuts to a shot of Johnny’s face made up as that of an old man, there’s an unshakable sense that what he sees represents how he feels within. Couple this with a later scene, in which Johnny and Cleo attend a movie premiere in Italy; while appreciated as a movie star, communication with the press is hindered by an obvious language barrier. Is Hollywood just as foreign to him? These nuances make Somewhere not only a thoroughly engaging film, but also one of the year’s most surprising.
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