Film Review – Somewhere
It’s a common criticism of Sofia Coppola that she seems to be trying to point out that being rich and famous is very hard. Being a person is hard, and being rich and famous is what Coppola knows, so maybe there’s some truth to that. But I think she is exploring something deeper. I don’t think there is another filmmaker who is as good at capturing the absurdity of the lives of society’s status-holders as she is. This is an underlying theme in each of her four films, from the story of the beautiful, worshiped teenage Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides, to film star Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, to the doomed royals of Marie Antoinette. She shows us how the removal from the ordinary comes with its own challenges.
In her new film Somewhere, which sees its wide release today, the status-holder in question is movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). He is between films, promoting the last one he made—without enthusiasm, but without complaint, either. In an opening scene that shows a great amount of patience and confidence from Coppola, one shot shows Johnny drive his fast car in circles. On screen, off screen, around and around, for what becomes almost a comically long time. It’s a bold, maybe risky way to start the film, but it gives us a concise view of the way Johnny acts and thinks: he’ll just sort of keep doing something until he thinks maybe it’s time to not be doing it anymore.
We spend a fair amount of time getting to know Johnny’s everyday life (living at the Chateau Marmont, drinking beers alone, taking calls from his publicist), before we’re introduced to his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). Johnny’s been a sometimes-weekend parent, but now Cleo’s mom must go away for a while, for reasons not entirely clear, and Cleo will have to stay with dad. This is another thing he doesn’t complain about, and it’s a nice cue that we’re not about to see some typical “dad’s-an-incompetent-idiot” hijinks. Johnny stretches those weekend dad skills out, and tries his best to connect with his daughter in a way he never has—in a way that maybe he hasn’t connected with anyone in a long time.
The patience of the opening scene continues throughout the film. In some places, this works wonderfully. Johnny takes Cleo to ice skating practice, where he watches her run through her routine. The inclusion of the full routine lends believability to the subtle progression of Johnny’s admiration for his daughter. It’s also one of the ways that the film truly takes Cleo seriously as a character, rather than just as a plot point in Johnny’s life. However, in some other scenes, the leisurely pace grows wearisome, such as when (before Cleo’s arrival) Johnny orders up some lovely ladies who do a synchronized pole dance in his hotel room. The situation is funny, but also vaguely depressing, and surely this is what Coppola is going for—but when the point is made, the scene goes on and on. Will we really hear that entire Foo Fighters song? Yes, we will.
When she gets it right, Coppola can create an atmosphere where the oddities of the setting and circumstances make moments that do feel “real” into tiny, pretty triumphs, highlighting the wonders of interactions between human beings. In an opulent Italian hotel, Johnny encourages Cleo to try perfecting her underwater handstand in the pool that would be ridiculously small, except it’s a pool just for them. In another scene, Johnny has an awkward interaction with a woman with whom he’s clearly had an unsuccessful romantic connection (so to speak…), a moment many of us might find familiar—but it happens while they’re taking publicity photos at a press junket. Critics often praise the feeling of realism in film, and, for me, the wrapping that Coppola provides these real-feeling moments heightens their value even more.
Dorff and Fanning give unwaveringly solid performances as father and daughter, working smoothly together. I keep thinking fondly of a scene where they communicate about a fraught situation with nothing but a few stolen expressions when someone else isn’t looking; it’s excellent. The film is also beautiful to look at. I find Coppola’s frequent long, static shots entrancing; somehow they never get old to me. This style becomes more pronounced with each of her films, and possibly I’ll grow tired of it when she decides to make a whole movie without moving the camera at all. Here, I love it.
While we see the progression of a relationship and a lot of development from Johnny’s character, the film doesn’t have much of an arc, and I worried about where it would meander its way to. I can’t say I found the closing scene particularly satisfying. But, overall, I liked being with these characters, in these situations, watching these visuals. A lot of people will find this film boring, and that’s okay. It’s about a mood, and if it’s not one that you’re interested in, that’s a long 97 minutes. And though the film isn’t perfect, I’m interested enough in these characters and this relationship that I hope Coppola pulls a Richard Linklater and makes a sequel in 10 years. I want to know how Johnny and Cleo end up.
Final Grade: B+