Sofia Coppola follows her male lead to nowhere
Published: January 19, 2011
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Opens Jan. 21
For better and for worse, heterosexual, no longer young, white male anomie has been a staple of American storytelling for the past 50 years. Its presence in fiction is undeniable: It haunts the novels of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, Raymond Carver, and on to Jonathan Franzen and Sam Lipsyte. It also crops up in movies—Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, Judd Apatow’s Funny People, even Hot Tub Time Machine—as A. O. Scott noted in his May 7, 2010, New York Times essay “Gen X Has a Midlife Crisis.” Television has always been rife with such storylines (Mad Men the most adored recent example). As for music, what are the lyrics of the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy if not efforts to make what they cared so much about in their 20s still matter in their 40s?
None of these so acutely captures the pathetic, apathetic banality of heterosexual white male isolation as writer/director Sofia Coppola does in Somewhere. That she does so in the context of Hollywood only makes the movie’s calculated observations all the more piercing: All unhappy bros are the same.
Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a successful movie star staying at the Chateau Marmont Hotel while he’s in Los Angeles, doing post-production work and participating in a press junket. He drunkenly breaks his wrist as the movie opens, causing him to spend a large chunk of the running time with a cast. When not fielding soft/oddball questions from the foreign press (“Would you like to go to China?” “Can you share your workout secrets with us?” “This movie has a reflection of today’s postmodern globalism?”), getting the cold kiss-off from his female co-star (Michelle Monaghan) after a promotional photo shoot, and having his hand held by a handler who has an insincere professional smile permanently branded on her face, he’s aimlessly coasting through his days and nights. Parties are already in swing in his room when he gets there. Sometimes he has mechanical sex with whatever woman makes herself available. A beer or cocktail is fine whether day or night, a cigarette when bored. Twice he hires a set of blond twins (Karissa and Kristina Shannon) to pole dance for him in his room; he watches them as if viewing a 2 a.m. television spot for Pajama Jeans. Propecia and other prescriptions line the bathroom sink.
Into this glacial chaos comes Cleo (Elle Fanning), his 11-year-old daughter by Layla (Lala Sloatman). He takes Cleo to her ice-skating lesson. They play Guitar Hero with his friend Sammy (Chris Pontius). She cooks breakfast for them. When Layla tells Johnny she “needs some time,” he ends up hanging out with Cleo for a few days straight. She goes with him to Milan for an appearance at an awards show, where they stay up late eating gelato and watching Friends dubbed into Italian. The next morning Cleo gives dagger eyes to the Italian actress (Laura Chiatti) who shares breakfast with them. Back in Los Angeles, Johnny and Cleo enjoy a few tranquil days together as father and daughter before he has to drop her off at camp after an escapist side trip to Las Vegas.
If the plot sounds reminiscent in particulars and themes to previous Coppola efforts, it is. Like Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, Somewhere spotlights Coppola’s wonderful ability to see the worlds in which women move from adolescence to adulthood, and like Lost in Translation it focuses on an older man and a younger woman (or, in this case, girl) uniting against the world around them. While Somewhere makes that relationship parental—a huge difference that’s handled with touching subtlety—the more drastic curveball here is form. Somewhere unfolds in a series of almost static long takes, creating a mise-en-scène that lacks the fluid pacing Coppola has displayed previously. In its place is an almost Van Santian drift, scenes running together that eventually accrue into something resembling narrative momentum, but it’s not a trajectory the movie establishes early. Nearly 10 minutes unwind before dialogue takes place, and even when characters start talking to one another it’s perfunctory: “Hey Johnny, doing OK?” “Great, thanks.”
The performances match this muted tone. Now approaching 40, Dorff retains that irreverent smirk that made him so much fun in Blade and Cecil B. DeMented, and a sublime Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol. For the duration of Somewhere, that impish streak is reined in, replaced by an effort to put on a good face when everybody who knows Johnny thinks he’s an ass. He receives aggressively insulting text messages from a blocked number. The only women willing to sleep with him appear to be those meeting him for the first time. And Cleo’s mother—an ex-wife? Separated? Who knows, none of Johnny’s relationships are complete—can’t get away from him fast enough when dropping off Cleo.
This affectless attitude defines the movie’s entire visual and aural mission. Veteran cinematographer Harris Savides does a fabulous job of flattening every frame. Johnny flits about Los Angeles day and night, and then he and Cleo head off to Milan and Vegas, but every place looks and feels the same: While the Milan hotel is certainly more posh than the Marmont, everything runs together in this patiently stitched together narrative. Somewhere is a movie of near constant, restless motion, but there’s no there there.
Even more oppressive is the ambient sound: a steady stream of nearby conversations, passing cars, radios down the hall, etc., audible enough to be heard but not so loud as to distract from the focus on Johnny. He’s surrounded by people living their lives, but where his takes place, there’s silence—or, worse, lack of originality. Coppola has a genuine knack for choosing great songs that emotionally complement her storyline, and she almost goes out of her way to paint Johnny’s music life in ordinary pop.
Over Somewhere’s roughly 90-minute running time, though, two moments bookend Johnny’s emotional journey. About half an hour in he has to hit an F/X studio to get a cast made of his head for makeup, and Coppola and Savides shoot the scene in a single three-minute shot. Aside from looking absolutely uncomfortable—his entire head, eyes, and mouth are covered, with only two small holes for his nostrils—by this point you’ve seen enough of Johnny’s life to understand this moment as his entire existence in one image. The camera almost imperceptibly zooms in on Johnny’s masked head, the only sound his in- and exhalations. Sure, he’s alive, but all he’s doing is breathing.
The shot is answered about 45 minutes later, after Johnny has spent a large chunk of time with Cleo, possibly the most time they’ve ever spent together continuously. They sun by the Marmont pool. The camera zooms out on the pair as the Strokes’ “I’ll Try Anything Once” plays, and Coppola establishes one of those cinematic moments that feels emotionally rich.
It’s a sequence that borders on the content, particularly in a movie so filled with ordinary desperation, but it’s fugitive and a fantasy. Johnny still has to take Cleo to camp, Cleo isn’t sure when she’s going to see her mom or Johnny again, and Johnny—well, Johnny checks out of the Marmont, but Somewhere doesn’t say where he’s going. The end is completely ambiguous, and an emotional resolution is flatly denied. Somewhere may leave you wondering if that open-endedness is a directorial punt on Coppola’s part, but it may also leave you suspecting something colder: that this aging star will simply continue his lifeless life, now with a crippling understanding of just how empty it is.
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