Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere: A Beautiful Ride to Nowhere

January 6, 2011
Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in "Somewhere"

Some cinema can be difficult but fortifying: slow, elliptical, and stark. Boredom — or patience — can pay dividends. But rarely does the inverse hold true; it’s seldom that we’re afforded the opportunity of enjoying but not liking a film. Somewhere, which has now been reviewed everywhere, is never boring, despite Sofia Coppola’s insistence upon real-time long shots. The film says nothing particularly new, describes its Los Angeles setting in terms no more specific than its title and its characters as nothing more than “someones.”  But its vagueness is beautiful-looking. This is usually not enough to earn an audience’s attention, but ours is secured here.

Somewhere tells the story of A-list actor Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff, who has quite a charming face for a man with such a decidedly small nose. He resides at The Chateau Marmont, and seems to live a life void of introspection. It’s a world of Blackberries, chirpy PR assistants, and erotic dancers who tote their telescoping stripper poles around with them suite-to-suite. When Johnny’s eleven-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), shows up, supposedly endowing him with a new appreciation for life, we’re meant to believe a real relationship is forged and that she’s activated a hidden strain of humanity in him.

The opening scene, which every single review of the film points out, is a stunning shot of Johnny driving his black Ferrari around the desert in circles. The camera remains static and vulnerable to an exaggerated Doppler effect, our visual and aural perception of the car growing faint and then returning with a sonic swoop. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor — lost star driving in circles — but as an establishing shot, it works well.

Yet for a film that will go on to prove itself spare, this sort of heavy-handedness is relentless. Johnny and Cleo play Guitar Hero to “So Lonely” by The Police, the literalness of Sting’s lyrics (“I feel lonely, I’m so lonely, I feel so low”) rubbing the sensitive part of the mind raw. Johnny wears a faded Black Flag t-shirt (an early ’80s L.A. punk band), which, like Johnny himself, has seen better days. At a press junket, a journalist asks him, “Who is Johnny Marco.” Of course, he stammers. Makeup artists slather his face in latex to turn him into a wrinkly, liver-spotted old man. He sits in the chair, featureless, spackled in goo, his every breath audible, his every swallow complete. The scene is weirdly weird for Sofia Coppola, and refreshingly so, but its metaphorical use-value too obvious.  It’s as though she underestimates her viewers’ intelligence, which is especially offensive if you’ve ever heard or read her in interview (a fun party game is reading aloud from Sofia Coppola Q&As).

Both the opening and closing credits of Somewhere are printed in a tiny, sans serif font, like an eye chart, which seems appropriate. It’s easy to spend the whole film straining yourself, trying — and failing — to make meaning out of gauziness. Nothing happens in Somewhere, which sounds like a Philistine complaint, but that’s precisely what’s so enraging about the lack of plot – being exasperated by it turns you into a dullard. The characters don’t change; allegedly, a bond is sealed between father and daughter, but there’s no evidence for it. The single scene that captures potent emotion — Cleo weeping in the car en route to camp — ends abruptly and without resolution. Johnny looks over at her and says, “C’mere. Don’t cry.” There’s no “I love you.” There’s no sustained conversation, just a sweetly stated imperative. Then a cut to the smiley pair in a casino.

This isn’t to say though that there aren’t moments of greatness in Somewhere. It’s always beautiful, and somehow never boring. But for every hilarious pole-dancing scene, there’s a gratuitous sequel, and for every lonely cigarette that Johnny sucks in, another beer to be suffered through. But the embarrassing faux-profundity and reiterations of themes from Lost in Translation are all worth enduring for Elle Fanning’s performance. She’s the film’s kindling, and she warms every scene she’s in. Cleo is willow-limbed and pale; her hair will only be naturally blonde for another few years. Her rolling suitcase has light-up wheels. She almost — but not quite — needs a bra. She’s still young enough to mindlessly lean on her dad and put her sneakered-feet up on sofa arms. When an old friend of Johnny starts hanging around, Cleo is quick to laugh broadly at his jokes, as though she’s maintaining a not-quite-crush on him. After Johnny’s Ferrari breaks down, they wait for a tow truck on the side of the road. Cleo stands against a stop sign, playing solitary hand games and swinging her arms forward and back, enthralled by her own momentum. Every movement is familiar. It’s worth noting though how much more interior life is granted to Cleo than Johnny; one suspects this might not even be intentional. If you don’t write real characters, it’s easier to render ones who are too young to have fully-formed consciousnesses.

Films this quiet must be tight — every elision purposeful and every minute of silence intentional. We need to trust that Somewhere is the product of systematic omission, but we can’t. Each error exposes a vacancy, and Sofia Coppola ruins a few potentially great things. In one scene, Johnny sits forlornly on his hotel suit couch, drinking a Corona, smoking a cigarette, and staring off into space. A perfect bowl of uneaten fruit rests at the outer perimeter of the frame (the wealthy are always surrounded by uneaten fruit). It’s a perfect detail up until the point where Johnny picks up an unblemished pear and examines it as Hamlet does Yorick’s skull. An almost-subtle moment taken one move too far.  Throughout the film, Johnny’s arm is in a cast, due to a night of heavy partying (he tells his ex it’s from shooting stunts). The cast could have — and should have — been used like an improv prop, complicating and making funnier otherwise desolate scenes. Once, we see his plastered arm foreshortened, his blurry, hung-over face in the background, half-hidden by high thread count sheets.  And in two scenes, Johnny showers with his arm hanging out the curtain at a right angle, like a traffic signal. This is all slightly comic, but it’s not enough to justify what seems like a random choice. When Cleo finally arrives and saves the film, she’s writing on his cast in black Sharpie: a heart, then a comma, then “Cleo.” This, it seems, is the cast’s real raison d’etre: to recreate a palette for those loopy, teenage margin scrawls we remember Lux doodling on binders in The Virgin Suicides, i.e. not enough to account for a protagonist’s handicap. A stylist at heart, Sofia Coppola probably just thought it would look cool.

Any female under 30 who’s even remotely inclined towards fashion or commercial indie art has described something — a flimsy blouse, a forgettable carport, a scanned Polaroid on Facebook — as “Virgin Suicides-y,” thus mentally bleaching out real life and adding a little lens flare to an otherwise unsparkley sky. Similarly, “Kinda Lost in Translation-y” is now shorthand for overseas alienation. Creating a visual language that people rely on to describe mundane moments really is a feat, and it’s one Sofia Coppola deserves recognition for. But telling a story is so much harder. The Virgin Suicides is by far her finest film, but the script was based on Jeffery Eugenides’s novel. If Sofia Coppola is to continue directing, she should use real writers for her plots and characters; she’s stranded nowhere good without them.