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January 15, 2011


Sofia Coppola is one of those directors who I always feel I’m supposed to love, but I just can’t quite manage it.  Each time I line up and watch, and still the only thing with her name on it I’ve really enjoyed is her father’s blanc de blancs.  In a can.  That said, Somewhere plays directly to type.

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is an action movie star, living aimlessly in the infamous Chateau Marmont.  He’s broken his forearm on the set of his recently-wrapped eurospy thriller, Berlin Agenda, which is probably the most interesting thing about him.  Other than that, he fills in the time between press junkets and busywork for future projects lounging by the pool, stumbling into bed with random women, watching a pair of twin dancers who set up their collapsable poles in his room, and generally driving in circles.

Actually, make that literally driving in circles.  The very first scene in the film is of some dusty track out in the middle of nowhere, with Johnny driving around and around and around.  The shot drags on well past the point of comfort; past the point that every thinking person in the audience wants to jump up and yell “yes! We get the heavy-handed symbology, you silly director.  He’s driving aimlessly around in circles.”  With absolutely no other material to work with we already get the point, and we’re sick of it.

The thing is, this isn’t a particularly clever movie.  It’s mildly clever, yes, but not nearly as clever as it (and Coppola) thinks it is.  It weighs itself down with Meaning, so when someone is unimpressed the natural response it is to assume that they just didn’t Get It.  But we do, in fact, get it; there’s just nothing all that impressive here.

Johnny’s solipsism isn’t quite complete, though.  Bumming around the apartment is a childhood friend of his (Chris Pontius), whose purpose seems to be to bum around the apartment as Johnny’s de rigeur Hollywood hanger-on.  And somewhere around the halfway mark — too late to effectively drive any sort of plot — Johnny gets saddled with his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning).  She seems to be there to throw his emptiness into even sharper relief, as if anyone didn’t yet get it.

To be fair, there is something else going on.  Coppola has fused the obvious Hollywood-life-is-empty theme to interactions between watching and being watched.  Johnny watches the twins perform their act; watches Cleo practice ice skating; watches an exhibitionist on the floor below.  But he’s also uncomfortable about being followed by paparazzi in his car; being stalked through text messages; about being on stage at an awards ceremony in Milan.  He obviously likes being watched as a movie star, but only when he can control it.  There’s a film-studies master’s thesis in there for the finding, but nothing notable or interesting enough for the general public.

I can’t really fault either Dorff or Fanning for their unremarkable performances, because there’s nothing there for them to perform.  I’m unsure how Coppola garners best-director nods for what seems to consist of telling Dorff to look bored and tired, Fanning to act like she’s a pre-teen and cry occasionally, and the cameras to keep holding shots look past their natural expiration dates.  Yes, Sofia, we get that life doesn’t cut conveniently away at natural breakpoints, but there’s a reason we’re watching a movie and not real life

One gets the feeling that Coppola wants us to see her as Cleo: raised in near-surrealism among the Hollywood glitterati.  The truth is she’s a lot closer to Johnny: invested with the freedom and resources — artistic and financial — few of us can even dream of, and blowing them all on pointless self-indulgence.

Worth it: no.
Bechdel test: fail.

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