Sofia Coppola’s latest film opens with a static long shot of the film’s protagonist, Hollywood film star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), driving his car round and round a racetrack for what feels like an eternity. The slow, patient rhythm of this scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie in which Ms Coppola and her cameraman Harris Savides set up long, slow takes of characters who are meant to be experiencing life or let’s say a particularly cinematic, existential ennui in the vein of Antonioni.
The only problem, plot aside is that compared with Coppola’s previous works, this feels the slightest by quite a large margin and as much as it touches on recurring themes in her work such as the loneliness, dislocation and ritualistic that can exist within a life of privilege it feels too much like we are left on the outside with no way in.
Somewhere has echoes of the plot of Lost in Translation in that it again deals with the life of a famous actor who has in a sense lost his soul and identity and who is briefly shocked out of his torpor by a young woman, in this case the young woman being Marco’s pre-adolesecent daughter Cleo(Elle Fanning).
In the films first half, he spends time with her infrequently, working around his shall we say leisurely schedule living at LA’s Chateau Marmont Hotel where he drinks, is entertained by pole dancers, indulges in some casual carnality and lounges by the pool. Later, after a teary phone call from his ex, he is forced to spend more time with Cleo and a large portion of the movie are just scenes of a father and daughter reconnecting and hanging out. And that’s fine. They have an unforced, natural chemistry and the Marco character seems to find a purpose beyond boozing and bonking.
The problem is that’s pretty much it story wise. There has to be more than this and yet there is nothing. Long, drawn out scenes of a rich movie star being a rich movie star and then finally! finally realizing that his life is empty and without meaning. Okay, well we could have guessed that pretty much from the first scene right? The car going around in circles? As well as the scene where he falls asleep watching a pair of blonde bimbos pole dancing in his bedroom? Oh, and the scene where he feels like an outsider at a party being thrown in his apartment by a bunch of opportunistic hangers on?
Now, say what you will about any of her previous films but she did manage to achieve a certain style with The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette as well as provide a uniquely dreamy, feminine perspective through her protagonists. Admittedly,Antoinette was more style than substance at times but Somewhere could certainly have borrowed a bit more of that films visual panache.
There is a strong sense of a life just passing by here and the film succeeds in depicting an unexamined life but why should we care and why does it feel like our lives are passing by here too?
Is Coppola trying for art house minimalism in the hope that something profound will leak out from the frame by osmosis? What are we to make of a scene in which Marco sits in a make up chair with a plaster cast on his face, breathes in and out as the camera stays focused on him for what seems like an eternity?
This scene brought back terrible memories of trying to sit through Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. In that film, there is a very similar shot in which the camera pulls out slowly from a window outside a house for what seemed like a day. I fell asleep watching that one. And who was the cameraman on that film? Let me see now… Mr Harris Savides!
Now, Stephen Dorff is fine; handsome, charismatic, at ease. But he is limited by the material here and gives him very few opportunities that say Lost in Translation gave Bill Murray to reveal interesting facets of his jaded movie star character. An opportunity to show a relationship between Marco and a former co-star played by the fiery, talented Michele Monaghan is simply thrown away in one scene and she is never heard of or seen again.
This film is severely undernourished. Okay, I get that it’s a mood piece but when the mood is that of idle self indulgence and this defines your main character for pretty much ninety nine percent of the movie, you have to back it up with at least some interesting visual composition and Somewhere lacks strong imagery throughout which makes it seem even more ephemeral if that’s possible.
Coppola is definitely attempting something ambitious here stylistically but lacks the touch of a master to even suggest or hint at anything darker or more troubling bubbling beneath it’s airy surface.