Sunday, January 23, 2011

Movie Review: Somewhere

Somewhere (2010)
Starring: Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning
Written and Directed By: Sophia Coppola

This was one of my most-anticipated films of 2010. I love Sophia Coppola. I think Lost in Translation (2003) is one of the best films of the 2000s. It may be hard for her to top what she managed to achieve with that film. I also thought The Virgin Suicides (1999) was an excellent directorial debut and I even enjoyed Marie Antoinette (2006) even though there are many who despised it.

Somewhere is Coppola's most self-indulgent film. It has long, monotonous scenes of nothing. As a result, the viewer is left with an acute understanding of the point she is trying to make while getting a little restless at the same time. Take for example the opening scene. Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) drives his expensive (and loud) car around and around in endless circles on a sunny, dusty patch of land in L.A. County. The car circles the entire track at least four times before coming to a stop. Coppola has made her point -- Johnny Marco is aimless, restless and is quickly going nowhere in life. However, it is at the expense of her audience who may become detached and alienated right from the long opening scene.

That being said, Coppola has this knack for exploring an atmosphere. That talent is on full display in Somewhere. Like her previous films, Somewhere is less a cohesive narrative and more of a series of vignettes that allow the viewer a glimpse into the lives of Johnny and his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). The atmosphere on full display is the small bubble Johnny lives in -- which consists of an endless stream of parties and publicity junkets, his near-empty room at the infamous Chateau Marmont and his aimless drives around Hollywood. When Cleo comes to stay with him for a few weeks because her mother needs "time off," Johnny and Cleo embark on a series of little "get-to-know-you" father-daughter bonding moments. Whether spending time together in their massive hotel suite in Italy or simply playing ping-pong near the Chateau Marmont swimming pool, Cleo suddenly provides meaning and purpose to Johnny's life. Sometimes a person's happiness, whether you are rich or poor, can be as simple as having a loving companion at your side.

Somewhere has a very European minimalism feel to its construction. It felt French, if that makes any sense. That minimalist approach isolates Johnny and Cleo in this vapid Hollywood environment. Despite that setting, there is nothing vapid or Hollywood about their bonding experiences. The film excels most when the two lead actors are on the screen together.

Coppola had Dorff and Fanning hang out alone together for weeks leading up to the start of filming. That tactic paid off as the two of them have an undeniable and completely believable chemistry. Johnny treats Cleo less like a daughter and more like an equal partner, suggesting that while Johnny may not have natural paternal instincts when it comes to discipline (he takes Cleo gambling in Las Vegas), he loves his daughter. In a film of long, aimless scenes, it's the performances of Dorff and Fanning that keep the viewer invested in movie. Dorff may not be the most interesting actor, but he does a solid job in Somewhere -- based on his own stalled Hollywood career, Dorff is perfectly cast in the role. However, Fanning is the real star here -- she's an adorable, talented and pretty young woman who is a dozen times more charming than her precocious, overrated older sister, Dakota. I have an appreciation for child actors who actually act like the children they are in their roles, instead of going the wise-beyond-their-years route. Fanning gives a subtle, nuanced performance that is so good that I hope she gets a Best Supporting Actress nod at the Oscars. Her scenes with Dorff and Chris Pontius (the Jackass star plays Johnny's stoner buddy, Sammy) are the highlights of the film.

In the end, Somewhere feels a little hit and miss. While there were some genuinely moving scenes there were also times when I simply just wanted to know a bit more about Johnny and Cleo. I wanted at least one stand-alone scene where they come to terms with one another, as Charlotte and Bob did a few times in Lost in Translation. What was their relationship like before this extended bonding period? How does Johnny really feel about his fame? We know that he's depressed and lonely and isolated in his hotel room, but we don't know when or why those feelings started. That being said, Coppola tends to leave things unsaid -- it's up to the viewer to read into the characters' actions and decide for themselves. Sophia Coppola has never disappointed, though. She remains a unique voice in the world of Hollywood, choosing to quietly focus on people instead of cars, money or extended action sequences.