We should all have such problems as movie star Johnny Marco. Whiling away his off-set days at West Hollywood’s infamously dissolute Chateau Marmont Hotel, Marco has women flinging themselves at him. His agent, manager, and personal assistant ensure he never has to think about his schedule. And though he’s divorced, he has a perfectly lovely eleven-year-old daughter to show for his marriage.
“Who cares?” one might ask. Writer-director Sofia Coppola, whose Somewhere finds its central character peeking over the fence and wondering if the grass has turned a shade greener. Coppola has successfully trod similar territory, winning an Oscar nomination for her direction of Lost in Translation. That film was about a movie star living in an upscale hotel, whose friendship with a younger woman curiously revitalized him. In broad strokes, Somewhere tells the same story, reworked for father and daughter.
Coppola has never been more minimalist: naturalistic to a fault, Somewhere aims, with its longueurs, to instill us with Johnny’s ennui. Faded movie star Stephen Dorff easily slips into Johnny’s skin. He has an easy chemistry with Elle Fanning, who plays Johnny’s daughter Cleo with an unbearable lightness of being that reflects her Ferrari-driving father’s existential distress when she’s not around.
Somewhere touches on sex farce when a friend with benefits invites herself into Johnny’s bed while Cleo’s staying with him. And Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter revels in the absurdities of a life in the movies: sitting in an inches-thick mask of plaster, Johnny finds the perfect externalization of his mummified blankness, and a promotional trip to Milan proves both that he has a woman in every port and that it’s easy to get…lost in translation.
The core of Somewhere lives in the space between Johnny and Cleo as they quietly regard each other with mutual affection. Though Cleo’s admiration curdles when one of her father’s girlfriends intrudes on father-daughter time, she enjoys his movie-star milieu and his somewhat surprising attentiveness and supportiveness. For Johnny’s part, Cleo gives him pride and replaces numbness with calm, an outwardly subtle but inwardly profound shift.
Somewhere has one other thought on its mind: men’s perception of women, and how having a daughter forever changes it. One of the scenes of Johnny gazing at (and through) identical-twin pole dancers—who, humorously, do “house calls” toting their own poles—comes adjacent to a scene of Johnny watching Cleo ice skate. It doesn’t take a background in Freudian analysis to connect these dots: Johnny is taken by the pureness and innocence of his daughter’s beauty as she puts on her own show, and his love for her may make him think twice about his treatment of adult women. Aside from his ex-wife (Lala Sloatman), Johnny has burned bridges with the costar (Michelle Monaghan) of his latest, presumably awful action thriller.
Coppola finds a visual soul mate in Gus Van Sant’s regular cinematographer Harris Savides, whose gentle, poetic observation is absolutely essential. Somewhere feels like it’s made by the grandchild of Antonioni (and, in an artistic sense, perhaps it is). It’ll drive at least half the audience crazy, while the rest will walk out with a light buzz.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]