Coppola further hones her gifts for ruefully funny observation and understated melancholy with this low-key portrait of a burned-out screen actor.
Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” is a quiet heartbreaker. Trading “Lost in Translation’s” Tokyo hotel for West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, the ever-perceptive writer-director further hones her gifts for ruefully funny observation and understated melancholy with this low-key portrait of a burned-out screen actor. Steeped in morning-after regret and centered around a strong performance by Stephen Dorff, the result is sure to frustrate those who require their plots thick and their emotions underlined, but Focus Features should be able to court a small, discerning audience willing to get on the film’s delicate wavelength.
After the mixed reception for her buoyant period-piece “Marie Antoinette,” “Somewhere” may be viewed by some as a retreat of sorts for the writer-director — an even more pared-down return to the moody minimalism of her 2003 breakthrough, “Lost in Translation.” Pic reps a distillation of Coppola’s techniques rather than a progression, and her critics may well fault her for staying in her comfort zone, for retreating ever further into a bubble of solipsism and high privilege — a charge that would be more persuasive if the movies themselves weren’t so consistently disarming. Film by film, she’s building a fresh, distinctive body of work marked by an abiding fascination with the inner lives of celebrities — a desire to expose the ennui and alienation lurking behind so many tabloid personas and hold them up for pointed comic and dramatic inspection, something she does here with practiced ease.
“Somewhere” begins with a stationary single take, observing as a black Ferrari circles the same dusty stretch of California highway several times before coming to a stop. A man gets out, walks around the car and wordlessly poses a question (“Where am I?”) to which the film’s title serves as an answer, one whose meaning is not exclusively geographic.
The man is Johnny Marco (Dorff), a hunky actor in his 30s who’s holed up indefinitely at the Chateau while recovering from an on-set wrist injury. A sleepy-eyed drifter who’s enjoyed some bigscreen success but has clearly grown weary of it, Johnny spends night after night nursing his pain with pole dancers and party hook-ups, only to wake up each morning late for press junkets and other appointments related to his next movie. As in her last two pics, Coppola gets plenty of comic mileage out of her chosen milieu, skewering the bizarre rituals and excesses of the celeb circuit with a keen eye for the absurd (extending here to an uncredited cameo by Benicio Del Toro).
It’s soon revealed that Johnny has an 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who’s dropped off for irregular visits by his mildly reproachful ex-wife (Lala Sloatman). Being the kind of guy who can’t even remember the name of the woman he’s with, Johnny has trouble paying enough attention to Cleo, a bright, well-adjusted kid who quietly fits herself into her dad’s routine. But the two get along well enough, and Johnny ends up taking her with him to his film’s overseas premiere, leading to an Italian interlude (largely shot at Milan’s Hotel Principe Di Savoia) that wryly advances the notion that no matter where you are, hotel stays are more or less the same — swimming pools, insomnia, late-night room service.
While Johnny and Cleo bond during the trip, the picture wisely avoids imposing any sort of obvious arc on the relationship or turning the girl into a catalyst for her father’s redemption. Yet Fanning’s Cleo is given one wonderfully clear-eyed moment, after Johnny’s umpteenth thoughtless oversight, that says everything that needs to be said about her maturity, his irresponsibility and the sense of waste that pervades so many Hollywood lives.
Not much happens in “Somewhere,” but as studies in laziness go, it’s far from lazy; attentive viewers will discern a pattern in d.p. Harris Savides’ precisely framed compositions and editor Sarah Flack’s careful arrangement of scenes and motifs. On a narrative level, Coppola has never been more withholding; spanning a brief window of time and unspooling entirely in the present tense, the film trusts us to intuit the necessary details about Johnny’s so-so career and failed marriage without the benefit of exposition or flashbacks.
The rewarding cumulative effect of this approach is the sense that we’ve gotten to know the character intimately, a considerable credit to the actor behind the actor. Present in every scene of the pic’s 96-minute running time, Dorff riffs slyly on his own B-actor persona, even as he confirms the talent that’s always been apparent over the course of his uneven career. It’s a performance light on dialogue but rich in slouching, slackerish body language, and while Dorff spends roughly half the movie shirtless, what comes through is a sense of vulnerability rather than vanity. Fanning matches him nuance for nuance, rendering their onscreen relationship effortlessly convincing.
Coppola, who was granted rare access to Versailles for “Marie Antoinette,” worked a similar miracle with the notoriously hard-to-film Chateau, and Savides’ camera prowls the balconies and bungalows of this popular Hollywood haunt with an appreciation for its beauty as well as its isolation. Spare compositions by Phoenix thread together a soundtrack of artists including Foo Fighters, the Police and Gwen Stefani.