Thursday, January 13, 2011

Movie Review: Somewhere

Somewhere ****
Directed by:
Sofia Coppola.
Written By: Sofia Coppola.
Starring: Stephen Dorff (Johnny Marco), Elle Fanning (Cleo), Chris Pontius (Sammy), Michelle Monaghan (Rebecca), Benicio Del Toro (Celebrity).

Somewhere is the perfect title for Sofia Coppola’s new movie. It is about a movie star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) who spends all of his time somewhere. He lives in hotels, wakes up every morning to a phone call from his publicist telling him where he needs to be that day. Pretty much every women he sees has some sort of sexual reaction to him - even though sex has lost its thrill for him - he even falls asleep in the middle of it one time. He has no real home, no real friends - although he does have a childhood friend who is essentially a hanger on at this point. He leads a hollow existence where he drinks too much, smokes too much and really has no idea who he is and what he is doing.

Things get more complicated for him when his ex-wife drops off their 12 year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) because she “needs some time by herself”. Johnny and Cleo have always had a good relationship - but it’s never been much of a father-daughter one. In reality, the life of a movie star and a tween girl are very similar to each other. They both think the world revolves around them, both self conscious of their image, both want a lot of attention, but also fear being over exposed. They are both awkward and unable to communicate with each other or anyone else for that matter. For the first time, thrust into a real parent-child relationship, they really do not know how to behave.

Somewhere fits right in with the films Coppola has made so far - which in one way or another have all dealt with celebrity. The girls in The Virgin Suicides are observed from a distance by the boys that narrate the story - they do not really know them, but watch them so much that they think they do. Lost in Translation is about another movie star, isolated from those around him, making lonely phone calls to his family back home that he barely knows. His only connection is with the wife of another celebrity, who is ignored by her husband. And of course Marie Antoinette with its title character portrayed as a sort Paris Hilton type spoiled brat. Dorff’s Marco resembles the movie star played by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, except that he has gotten there decades earlier. He barely knows his daughter, although he loves her in his own way.

Somewhere is a slow movie and some have complained that nothing happens in it. But, what happens in Somewhere is more subtle. The key is the performances by Dorff and Fanning. I’m not sure what made Coppola think of Dorff for this role, but it was a stroke of casting genius. Dorff knows the routines of movie stardom, the long meaningless photo sessions, the trips to film festivals, the paparazzi, the loads of down time with nothing to do. The fact that you never really have to grow up. And he plays Johnny just about perfectly. Fanning is perhaps even better as Cleo - a girl whose needs have always come behind those of her parents (we see first hand Johnny’s lack of parenting ability, and while we barely see her mother, you can assume that someone who would just take off on an opened ended trip with barely a word to their daughter is not going to win mother of the year any time soon). She has compensated by perfected being quiet - fading into the background. She doesn’t quite know how to react when her father’s friend jokes around with her. When she wakes up one morning to find a strange woman having breakfast with them, we expect a tantrum - but instead a look between them says more than a tantrum could. By his look back, we know he gets it, and when a similar opportunity presents itself later, he turns the girl away because of his daughter. For him, this is a mark of personal growth. Coppola has many scenes like this in the film - where we think we know what is going to happen, but it plays out in a lower key than we anticipate.

Somewhere has been compared to the work of Italian director Michelangelo Antonnini - and I supposed stylistically there are some similarities, and the best work of his career is also concerned with people of affluence living hollow lives. This is particularly true in the first half hour of the film before Cleo enters the picture. There are two scenes in particular - where Johnny hires twin strippers to come to his room to do their routine and he simply sits there and watches them without passion. But this reminded me - thematically if not stylistically - of the ending of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, about a man who finally realizes that his glamorous life is empty.

Yet no matter what influences are apparent in Coppola’s film, it is very much her own work. I know the knock on Coppola is that all of her films are about spoiled rich kids much like herself. While that is true to a certain extent, what is also true is that she presents this world with honesty. She has said that this film is not autobiographical, and while I do not doubt her, this is certainly a world that she has known her whole life.

The ending of the film will likely anger people who want more definitive closure to the film - who want the two central characters to have some big scene where the profess their love for each other. But that isn’t the film that Coppola has made - she has subverted our expectations throughout the film, so why would she change that at the end? But the ending does represent growth of a sort for Johnny. He is never going to be a great father, but at the end, we feel that for the first time, he at least wants to be.

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