Somewhere (United States, 2010)December 21, 2010
With her most recent directorial outing, Sofia Coppola has strayed into an area of pretentiousness that we have rarely seen since the height of the French New Wave. There's probably a class of cinephile who will lap up Somewhere, savoring its bland flavor between bites of Baluga caviar and sips of Margaux 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon. For the rest of us, though, this movie works best as a sleep tonic. Somewhere isn't just frustratingly slow-moving; it's inert.
The movie begins with a static shot of what appears to be an elliptical race course. The way the camera is set up, we can see two sections of it - one in the foreground and another in the background (opposite sides of the oval). A Ferrari zips by, entering on the left and exiting on the right. Shortly thereafter, it re-enters higher on the frame, now moving right to left on the other side of the course. This is followed by a few seconds of inactivity during which we can hear the car engine. Then it reappears in the bottom portion of the frame, once again headed left to right. This continues for several laps and more than a minute. It represents the first of numerous times throughout Somewhere in which Coppola sets down her camera and focuses on mundane, repetitive action. There's a point to this, but the side effect neutralizes it. She wants us to understand the aimless mindset that defines the main character but, by doing it this way, she makes the film inaccessible. She misses the point that one does not have to make a boring film to dramatize the situation of a boring character. The tedium created by the filmmaker's approach overwhelms its effectiveness. Instead of being hypnotized into continuing to watch, we feel a powerful desire to either fall asleep or walk out.
Once Somewhere has moved passed the Ferrari, it introduces us to Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a movie star who lives out of a suite at the Chateau Marmont. His life is characterized by parties, recreational sex, junkets, and occasional visits by his 11-year old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). For the first 15 minutes, there's no dialogue and, even when the talking begins, it's sparse and rarely is anything important or memorable said. The only thing of interest in Somewhere is the relationship between Johnny and Cleo, but this is so marginalized by the limited screen time accorded to their interaction that it becomes almost meaningless. Only one scene evidences any humanity - a moment in Johnny's car when Cleo starts crying because she's afraid both parents are abandoning her. Johnny's parting remark to her (which she can't hear) - that he wishes he had been there for her - rings hollow in light of the metaphorical way in which Somewhere concludes. Ultimately, this is intended to be the story of how Cleo breaks through Johnny's barriers and brings him into touch with the real world, giving him back his life. In the end, however, I didn't care. I was simply counting down the minutes until the end credits rolled.
With Somewhere, Coppola seems to be attempting something similar to what she accomplished with Lost in Translation, at least in terms of tone. One obvious difference is that, in the earlier film, there existed an empathy with the lead characters that is absent here. Also, where Lost in Translation was meditative and seductive, Somewhere is flat-out boring.
Although lead actor Stephen Dorff exhibits little in the way of charisma, the same cannot be said about Elle Fanning, who is ethereal. She speaks volumes with her expressions, which are often her only means of communication in a production that's light on dialogue. Easily the equal of her older sister, Dakota, in talent, Elle represents Cleo as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. In some scenes, she is presented as a child. In others (especially those in which she's hanging out with Johnny's adult male friend), there's a quasi-sexual aspect to the character. Unfortunately, Coppola curtails Fanning's scenes (possibly due to hourly limitations for working minors), thereby limiting the number of scenes with potential emotional resonance. Indeed, the only instances in which Somewhere comes to life are when Fanning is on-screen.
Somewhere's self-conscious and obvious artiness may prove to be its undoing in all but the most elitist film circles. It demands more from its audience than most viewers will be willing to give, and offers scant rewards for those sacrifices. There's something to be said about the simplicity with which the movie has been composed and the quiet tranquility of some of its scenes, but such pleasant sidelights are not enough to overcome the movie's central problem. Somewhere goes nowhere.
Somewhere (United States, 2010)
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Ellie Kemper, Chris Pontius
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Harris Savides
U.S. Distributor: Focus Films