by George Sax
Nowhere man on the street of dreams
The much-cited opening of Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere consists of a sports car circling a track, passing a stationary camera several times before it comes to a stop in the middle of the shot. This brief static sequence is emphatically symbolic, but it’s more significant as a harbinger of what the rest of the film will deliver.
The car’s driver is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a star of Hollywood action movies. The next time we encounter him, he’s zonked and listlessly watching two young, awkward pole dancers perform for him before he nods off on his bed. Johnny’s living in the Chateau Marmont, a landmark hostelry on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard. The Marmont is where the German refugee and famous director-to-be Billy Wilder was living in a basement room with little more than a hotplate in the mid-1930s, trying to work his way out of penury and obscurity writing stories and screenplays that were mostly rejected by the studios. The Marmont is also where, 47 years later, comedian John Belushi fatally overdosed.
Johnny’s accommodations and social status are incomparably better than the young Wilder’s and he doesn’t appear to be in immediate mortal peril, although his moderately dissolute lifestyle may be trending problematically. Not long after the pole-dancing episode, he passes out on his bed while working his way to coitus with a girl he’s met at a party in his apartment. Parties seem to just happen in Johnny’s rooms without his initiative. At one point he returns to find the apartment crowded with mostly young partygoers, including an admiring young acting aspirant who buttonholes him to ask if Johnny uses the Method, a question he politely deflects.
But most of the time he’s on his own, desultorily tooling down Sunset and around L.A. (handsomely captured in Harris Savide’s cinematography) in his black Ferrari or just vegging on his bed or sofa, beer bottle in hand. Coppola trains her immobile camera on him sitting or lying there, subjecting us to exasperatingly long medium shots. Johnny is luxuriating in his undefined anomie, periodically relieving his situation with impromptu sexual engagements.
Coppola is dryly witty about the ease with which a movie star can get his ashes hauled and the near inescapability of Johnny’s erotic appeal to women, almost in spite of himself. And she casts an amusingly jaundiced eye on the movie marketing and star nursing ceremonies in Hollywood as Johnny goes to a publicity photo shoot and a ritualistic press conference. But these are only short sidetrips: The heart of the film—in more than one sense—is Johnny’s relations with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning).
His chemically insulated, well upholstered ennui is interrupted when his harried ex-wife deposits Cleo with him for a couple of weeks before she splits for parts unknown. Both Johnny and we discover his fond, admiring attachment to his bright, patient, neglected daughter. They bond, more like pals than parent and child, over video games, sampling several flavors of room service gelato in bed, and sharing a brunch of eggs Benedict that Cleo manages to turn out, a little implausibly, in a hotel apartment kitchen. Johnny is brought back to life; Cleo is his only real human linkage, and he remembers how he cares for her. Coppola engages us in the developing interconnections of these two, if only temporarily.
She has tried this tack before, infusing sentiment into a cooly remote, uneventful narrative, most noticeably in Lost in Translation. It seems more heartfelt here, but it doesn’t really compensate for the film’s aloofness and reticence.
Dorff plays Johnny as an amiably uncommunicative cipher, and that seems to be what Coppola wanted. The man seems to harbor no banked or extinguished passion, no discarded ambition or defeated illusions. We don’t learn why he’s holed up in the Marmont or why, until Cleo’s unexpected arrival, he seems to have rejected significant human connections. It’s hard to sustain interest in the character.
Somewhere’s studied minimalistic tone doesn’t really prepare us to care about Johnny, or his eventual turn to quiet desperation. Coppola has instead cultivated a posture of swank, smug existentialism as her film heads for a stylishly bleak conclusion.
Watch the trailer for Somewhere
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