In ‘Somewhere,’ an actor is going nowhere
There’s a trick with realism that allows us to think a filmmaker has dropped everything to follow someone, and in so doing we want to follow that someone, too. It’s a mastery of illusion that Sofia Coppola, for all her other talents as a filmmaker, doesn’t have yet. For “Somewhere,’’ she invites us to spend an hour and a half or so in the company of a famous actor named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). With his arm in a cast, Johnny languishes in a suite at Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont hotel, which under the circumstances doubles as a kind of celebrity halfway house.
I can’t say why Coppola wanted to spend time with this man. It’s like following someone on Twitter who fails to generate many compelling tweets.
“Drove the Ferrari around in circles. Cool.’’
“Twin strippers came by. Brought pole. Danced to Foo Fighters. Wuzn’t feelin’ it.’’
“Think that was Benicio Del Toro in the elevator. S’up, bro.’’
“Twins came back. Did tennis routine to that song that sounds like JLo.’’
“Got massage today. Wasn’t my usual girl. A dude. Took off his towel. Wuzn’t *even* feelin’ it.’’
“In Italy for junket. Mayor gave me key to city. Girl I never called back gave me finger.’’
Even by the rather forgiving standards of realism, Johnny is dull. Coppola might have been wondering whether it’s possible to do for the affluent what directors like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne do for the indigent: locate profundity in desperate little moments. When Johnny goes into a makeup studio to have a mold made of his head for a new project, it feels as if the movie might take off. The prosthetic takes 40 minutes to set. After it’s done, Johnny looks like an old man. He seems sufficiently impressed with the results. But the moment is purely that — a moment. Coppola simply affixes her playlist to the soundtrack and lets her camera gaze at whatever.
Most of Johnny’s time is spent in the company of his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), whose mother has dropped her with him for a few weeks. Cleo is semi-independent (see her cook) and semi-spoiled. But she loves her father and seems disappointed by his sluttiness and many paternal shortcomings. Coppola has mentioned that “Somewhere’’ might be a loosely personal tale about her girlhood spent with her own reckless father, Francis Ford Coppola. It’s too loose to be apparent. The melancholy that wafts through the film is the sadness of privilege. For instance, having to catch a helicopter to arrive at your summer camp in the California desert really doesn’t look like fun at all.
What a flat movie for Coppola to have made four films into her otherwise remarkable directing career. “Marie Antoinette,’’ her last, from 2006, was a vibrant, surprisingly shrewd essay on the power of shallowness and the shallowness of certain power. It’s a movie that’s getting better with age. “Somewhere’’ is a natural next movie only insofar as the protagonist has no head. It feels as if Coppola is on the verge of having an opinion about celebrity and the toxins of fame, that she might have the antidote to the misguided, if well-meant lunacy of “I’m Still Here.’’ Both have titles that proclaim relevance. So I’m not sure Coppola senses a problem, and if she does, she spends the film clearing her throat instead of speaking.
The movie could be a comment simply on her own star. Dorff has never been the most exciting actor. But he and Johnny have the tattoos of a man who’s made some poor choices. One reminds us that he’s “made in the USA,’’ and on his elbows are birds. Once with the strippers, he looks on from his bed like a sick child home from school. The second time he’s like a little boy on Christmas day. After 20 minutes with him, we’re no longer moviegoers. We’re baby sitters.