By Don Simpson | December 17, 2010
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer(s): Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Chris Pontius, Erin Wasson, Alexandra Williams, Nathalie Fay
The long and unmoving opening shot of a black Ferrari driving round and round in circles on a racetrack that appears to be in the middle of nowhere tells us a few things about writer-director Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Coppola has come here to test the patience of the audience, willfully overstating the significance of this scene by allowing it to drag on for a near eternity with no action, dialogue or soundtrack to appease the senses. This scene also plays out as a study of sound — we only see the black Ferrari when it happens to drive by the static camera lens, the other 75% of the time we are left with a barren landscape accompanied by the changing sounds of the Ferrari’s roaring engine as it approaches turns versus hitting the straightaways. We know nothing about the driver of the Ferrari, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), or his relationship to the remainder of the film; it is not until much later that we can piece together this visual metaphor: Johnny is pointlessly going around in circles in life, he is stuck in a rut.
Once Johnny arrives at the Chateau Marmont — his West Hollywood “home” at 8221 Sunset Boulevard — we realize that this scruffy, messy-haired guy dressed in a plain old t-shirt and jeans must actually be someone of significance. Johnny’s room number 59 is party central, yet he never seems to know when the next party is going to be; he arrives at home, only to find his abode filled with people he barely knows. Other times he walks into his bedroom to find a half-naked woman waiting for him in bed. There is nary a female in Somewhere who does not lustfully ogle Johnny. This is a guy who has absolutely no problems getting laid; Johnny’s only problem is the occasional text message from presumably scorned lovers using private phone numbers. Upon suddenly being bedridden by painkillers after drunkenly breaking his arm, Johnny is greeted by blond twins (Playboy playmates Karissa Shannon and Kristina Shannon) pole-dancing at the end of his bed. The twins perform for Johnny on multiple occasions.
Johnny is not a racecar driver; he is an actor (and a self-proclaimed stunt man). Presumably, Johnny is an A-list actor, but the paparazzi are never around, nonetheless, he seems to believe that people are always following him. Johnny is currently doing the publicity circuit for a soon-to-be-released film, so he receives wake-up calls from his personal assistant each morning with his agenda for the day; sometimes there is a chauffeur waiting for him downstairs, other times he must drive himself.
When Johnny’s 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) pops into the picture, he begins to be shaken from the stupor he has been in for who knows how long. First, Johnny is just shuttling Cleo to her ice skating lessons and helping her pick up some last minute supplies for summer camp, but soon he is carting her along with him to do a press junket in Milan. With Cleo now on his hands full-time, Johnny learns that he should curtail his hedonistic lifestyle; she means more to him than sex and parties. Cleo represents a lifestyle that Johnny has not previously considered, but now she seems to be the one cure to break him from his current state of dislocation and aimlessness. (This is especially interesting if you read Cleo as Sofia Coppola and Johnny as Francis Ford Coppola.)
In both substance and style, Somewhere is very clearly an anti-Hollywood film. Coppola’s minimalist storytelling is quite purposefully understated — vague even — with very sparse dialogue. Very little happens; Dorff is all but a mannequin who is merely being shuttled along for the ride.
There is very little character development; Coppola implies everything she needs to say via deep and limitless subtext. Cinematographer Harris Savides’ camera lingers for what seems like an eternity with a patience that is usually only afforded to foreign films. In summary: this heady and meditative film is not intended for mainstream U.S. audiences.
Los Angeles is portrayed as a perpetually alienating city and appears to be the cause of Johnny’s existential angst. It is not Johnny’s fault that he has embodied this shell of a pampered celebrity living a superficial lifestyle, and his life is not quite as wonderful as one would assume. There is something dehumanizing about never having to do anything — except posing for the occasional publicity photograph or answering mundane questions of the press. In theory, Johnny never needs to leave room 59; parties come to him, as do an endless bounty of beautiful women — his food, booze and cigarettes are even delivered to his door.
For all of her ambiguity, Coppola has opened Somewhere up to many interpretations. Some viewers will probably find an auto-biographical connection between Fanning’s character and Coppola’s own childhood as the daughter of the globe-trotting celebrity filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, just as some will be annoyed by this apparent ploy to have us sympathize with a wealthy Hollywood star who spends money just as easily as he abandons his Ferrari on the side of a rural road. In this current economic climate when red-blooded Americans seem to be more concerned about the well being of Main Street and “Joe the Plumber”, Somewhere dwells on Johnny’s obscenely carefree financial status. Of course, Somewhere could be read as a harsh criticism of Johnny’s all too easy lifestyle — his wealth and fame are the root of his existential crisis. But that too could easily be perceived as Coppola whining about her own existence. As much as I love her films, there is no denying that being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola does have its privileges.
As far as my own interpretation of Somewhere, the jury is still out. I am still teetering between enjoying some of my readings of the film’s message(s) while being annoyed by other interpretations. Somewhere is a drastic departure from the stunning cinematic eye candy of The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette which I love so much. The soundtrack by Phoenix (featuring songs by The Strokes and Bryan Ferry, among others), though good, is also a letdown in comparison to the pitch-perfect soundtracks from Coppola’s previous films.
Coppola was harshly criticized for Marie Antoinette because it was perceived as eye (and ear) candy and nothing more — an opinion this critic does not share. Somewhere focuses on many of the same topics as Marie Antoinette but with a dramatically different visual and aural aesthetic, a minimalist one that is more akin to “mumblecore” than anything else. The question remains: Will Somewhere appease the naysayers and haters of Marie Antoinette?