Monday, November 22, 2010

Somewhere (***)

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola


I think we can safely assume that Sofia Coppola doesn't think much about a life of Hollywood excess. Much like her fantastic 2003 film, Lost In Translation, her latest movie Somewhere follows a famous Hollywood actor at a crossroads. Of course, this crossroads sits between copious amounts of alcohol and fancy prostitutes. I imagine that it's incredibly difficult to make a film about an irresponsible, bloated, over-praised actor and make him seem likable. Now, having just finished Somewhere, I can say pretty confidently that Sofia Coppola has pulled off this feat twice and pretty effortlessly to boot. Of course, Somewhere isn't on the same level as Lost In Translation, but it has some truly great moments.

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a successful American actor who lives out of a hotel room at the infamous Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. His life is pretty simple: he invites people over for parties, everybody drinks, and he does his best to sleep with one of the women there. During the day, he may have the occasional press junket for his latest action film, but he's such a professional at this point that he can sleepwalk through all the questions and get home in time to view a pair of blond twins perform a choreographed striptease in his bedroom. There's very little of substance in Johnny Marco's life, but it doesn't seem to bother him much. Even when he breaks his arm, he walks around plaintively with his short cast as if it wasn't even there.

But Johnny does have some responsibilities. He has an eleven-year-old daughter named Cleo (Elle Fanning), who always seems to arrive at unscheduled times. Johnny's not a great father, but he's warm and loving. The fact that he can play Guitar Hero competently and orders Italian gellato in the middle of the night seems to make up for the fact that he isn't even aware that Cleo has been a practitioner of ice skating for three years. He also lets her spend an abundance of alone time with his funny, but occasionally sleazy friend Sammy (Chris Pontius, in the least surprising performance by a non-actor movie star I've ever seen). I thought more would be made about Sammy's ominous hovering over Cleo, but nothing materialized. That's a theme in Somewhere: things not materializing.

When Cleo's mother decides to skip town for an ambiguous amount of time, Johnny is left to take care of his daughter for the first time in what is probably a very long time. How does Johnny cope? Well, he just has her tag along. He even takes her on a trip to Italy, where his film is having its overseas premiere. Cleo cooks for the two of them whenever she can, but when she can't they just have room service. They play Wii, they listen to songs, and swim in pools. All very usual stuff for the two of them. Even when Johnny invites a former lover to stay in his room (the same room he shares with Cleo, mind you), the momentary conflict between them fades softly away. When they return to the States, Johnny prepares to take Cleo to her Summer camp, and all the while tries to reexamine the totality of nothingness that has consumed his life.

It's pretty hard to talk about the film's plot without making it seem boring, and perhaps that is the point. Johnny's life is a stream of endless vapidity and boredom. Long, meandering pauses permeate the film, while loud alternative rock music blares in the background. It's a testament to Sofia Coppola's talent as a writer and a filmmaker that Somewhere doesn't turn itself into pretentious monotony (I feel I may be in the minority here - if many found Lost In Translation uneventful, then this may feel to them like a shot of Valium). Her ability to craft such poignancy and character in such little moments is rather exhilarating to watch. The fact that she is able to show so much about Johnny and Cleo while having such limited dialogue between the two of them is interesting. It's certainly not a recipe for box office success.

I found myself so heavily drawn toward those great, smaller moments that it allowed me to forgive the more methodical, pondering sidebars. You know a scene or a shot has become too long when you find yourself asking as a viewer, "Well, we've been looking at this thing for such a long time; how come I can't figure out its symbolic meaning?" Luckily for Coppola, there are plenty of pithy, overzealous film students who are ready to grasp at straws and find the "meanings" for her. Myself, I just notice that Coppola is admirer of what many may see as mundane. She finds it endearing. And it's that warmth toward what many dismiss as "boring" that makes her films feel so endearing. But Somewhere really does challenge its audience, and sometimes even I was left scratching my head. Perhaps it's Coppola's defiance that will go on to define her filmmaking career, but it's hard to think that any of her films would even be made if she didn't have a certain movie legend as her father (you'd like to think that we could write about Sofia without mentioning Francis Ford Coppola, but it may take a few more films before that happens).

As I've always said, I prefer to see a filmmaker swing and miss then take the pitch. Somewhere was a giant porn hack, and I believe there was a lot more ambition here than the apathetic tone may allude to. If anything, it gets fantastic performances from its two main stars, Dorff and Fanning. Fanning, especially, plays the part with a much needed vibrancy, adding the occasional valley in a film that feels like an emotional plateau. The film is also is one of the more damning portraits of celebrity that I've ever seen, displaying the facetious life of American movie stardom as little more than free drinks and fake compliments. Not that many audiences are that interested in watching a man be miserable despite his numerous riches. Simply stated: Somewhere is about as great as a film that suppresses conflict can be.

So, where does that leave us? You may remember that I had Somewhere ranked #4 on the list of films I was most excited to see in 2010. I don't think it completely lived up to that ranking, but it did win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, so I don't think my enthusiasm was totally unwarranted. I fully expect this movie to get swallowed during its release at the end of the year, but I hope its not totally forgotten at the theaters. There's a certain segment of Hollywood that still seems to care about trying something different and I feel like America needs a movie like Somewhere every once in a while. Audiences need to get challenged now and then.

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