Friday, January 7, 2011

"Somewhere" marks Sofia Coppola's second-best work

Somewhere (2010)
97 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Sofia Coppola, being the daughter of Francis Ford and in a family of other showbiz kids, must've always been a visual learner living in a different environment than most children. She has her own patient rhythm and knows the Hollywood world that she writes it with familiarity. Coppola's fourth film, "Somewhere," is really going to split filmgoers as nothing really happens. Maybe it depends on your glass being half-empty or half-full. But if you're familiar with the female director's unique style, you'll get lost in the melancholy ambience and eloquent visuals. For about the first 15 minutes, "Somewhere" feels precious, slow, and borderline-pretentious, as Coppola has a thing for holding shots far longer than is comfortable. She never busies her frame; it's all about our eye seeing Miss Coppola's observations, and she takes her sweet time showing rather than telling with deadpan subtlety and precision like a European art film. 

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a dirty-sexy movie actor in his 30s, is introduced at the start by the car he drives. A sporty black Ferrari races around a track, while the restful camera just captures the endless loop for a few minutes. Same goes for two scenes with a pair of hot blonde twins doing a pole-dancing routine, as Johnny watches them right from his bed. These long takes are metaphorical for Johnny's empty routine. He holes himself up at West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont hotel, walking in on parties right in his own suite, falling asleep during sex with beautiful strangers, and mostly just floating through a life of tedium. We even get a slow crawl toward Johnny's head covered in plaster of Paris, as the makeup artists let it try for 40 minutes, and we just hear his breathing. Suddenly, his bright 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) drops in on him, as her mother has to go away, so he makes the best of the situation. They spend their days long and free, bonding for the first time, and gradually Johnny learns what it's like to be accountable for another person. 

"Somewhere" is the complete opposite of fast-food Hollywood filmmaking, even though it observes Hollywood with living-breathing legitimacy. Coppola captures the ennui, alienation, and hollow lifestyle of the rich and famous, with universal themes of family and personal crisis, that viewers will feel like a fly on the wall. A scene where Cleo ice skates to Gwen Stefani's “Cool” is lovely and the last scene with Cleo in the car is poignant. There's also an amusing surprise when Johnny gets a new (and male) masseuse with a “different” method for massages. But two recurring plot threads (Johnny receiving nasty text messages and the same car always following him) are purely filler. The film isn't driven by narrative but by character and mood, very much like the director's "Lost in Translation," as she affirms her individual style of deliberate pacing and careful timing in all of her films along with some self-indulgence. 

Coppola's film wouldn't work as well without its pitch-perfect actors. Dorff is understated, in the grabbiest role of his career, and Fanning is enchanting, acting with her eyes and smile. The bohemian Chateau Marmont is a character in itself, too, representing a state of mind. This is Coppola's most intimate and personal work as a filmmaker, and like most of her films, "Somewhere" feels like a passion project more than an assignment and that's so refreshing. Casual moviegoers will probably find it tedious, but really, it's a quietly perceptive and beautifully made tonic for cinephiles to savor over. “Who is Johnny Marco?” one asks at a press junket for the star's new movie. Well, the narcissism of the privileged is nothing new or surprising, but we leave Johnny differently than how we found him: he's human.

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