Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
In Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” the story doesn’t move at breakneck speed; instead it drifts. And a drifting pace fits it just fine. Some might rile in boredom at the seeming lack of a plot–the story is in many ways a prequel to an actual journey–and I would call that a valid reaction. Coppola’s is a kind of film dependent on a viewer’s mood: If you’re up for looking closer at scenes seemingly yielding nothing at first blush, then you might just get “somewhere” with it.
The story centers around Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a successful American actor staying at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. We see him in his natural state: Idling, drifting on the success of his movie career. When not being whisked away to press conferences and photo shoots, we glimpse him boozing, smoking, partying, or on the lookout for sex–and a constant stream of buxom women galore are eager (often for comic effect too eager) to offer themselves. But to Johnny, sex, like most pleasures, has become so commonplace that watching pole dancing twins serves a similar purpose as watching television to fall asleep. Sex, as many pleasures in his life, no longer has the kick it once had, as, in one of the film’s funniest moments, he falls asleep while performing cunnilungus on the catch of the night. An image of Johnny floating idly on a pool, a seemingly throw-away image, says everything about his life.
Enter Cleo (Elle Fanning), Johnny’s eleven-year-old daughter whom his ex drops off as part of their custody arrangement. Cleo isn’t a hindrance per se; she doesn’t “cock block.” In fact, on one occasion, Johnny has breakfast with a woman he’s just slept with, skipping any explanation to an uncomfortable Cleo also present at the table. Father and daughter get along–we see them goofing around and playing “Guitar Hero”–but more in the way of friends come to visit for the weekend. There’s a shallowness to their relationship, much like the shallowness of his knowledge of the world, i.e. he doesn’t view acting with any depth (at one point, a fan asks him about method acting, the definition of which he clearly bungles), nor does he view it in terms of its effect on the world (he asks for clarification when asked about postmodern globalization at a press conference). During one scene, Cleo showcases an ice skating routine, and he’s surprised to learn she’d been taking lessons for three years; as a father he has let the shared custody detach him too much from his daughter. When her mother goes away for an indeterminate amount of time, Cleo breaks down to tears, both parents’ distance having magnified her father’s distance from her. Though both parents still live, she is essentially an orphan, abandoned.
Dorff plays Johnny without too much of an edge, with enough softness. There’s a politeness to him that gives you a sense that he’s gone along with his success as opposed to driven it. Unlike most actors we see portrayed in these kinds of films, there’s no egotistic malice to him; he’s more blind than self-absorbed (in one of the film’s most memorably odd scenes, we see him sitting alone beplastered, breathing heavily through the nose holes, with monster masks behind him–himself having become a sort of monster unbeknownst to himself). It is this sort of innocence in the character that allows Johnny even the possibility of change. As he drops Cleo off to camp, muffled by helicopter noise, he yells out to her, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” Later, he calls his ex and admits, “I’m fucking nothing. Not even a person.” (Yes, not the most original of epiphanies, but the variation on the epiphany is a good one). Compelled by the realization of the utter emptiness of his existence, of being somebody but being nothing, he checks out of the Chateau Marmont as well as his faineant life. The title of the film then takes meaning; “Somewhere” is his destination. By film’s end, he starts out on a journey to complement, and at the same put meaning to, his role as a “somebody.”
Though not exactly laugh-out-loud, it should also be said that the film succeeds as comedy. There are several funny moments splattered throughout, such as when a chauffeur takes Johnny for a quick stop that turns out to be for a “quickie”; a scene involving a stripping male masseur; an odd musical number during his acceptance speech at an Italian awards show; Johnny calling for a tow truck while his Ferrari is stranded beside a “tow-away sign”; and a model getting her hair dressed on a balcony with her top off.