REVIEW: “Somewhere” (***1/2)

Posted by · 6:21 am · September 3rd, 2010

Venice Film Festival

Who’d be Sofia Coppola? (As an artist, I mean – I’m sure plenty of women would gladly trade for her beauty, wardrobe and Parisian rock-star husband.) No sooner had her bijou, highly personal breakthrough picture netted her an Oscar, atop countless critical valentines, than an acidic chorus of detractors began chiding her for aiming too low. When she shot for postmodern history and swirling visual excess in her strong follow-up, “Marie Antoinette,” the same people gleefully decided she was reaching too high this time.

So when the pitch surfaced for her fourth feature film, it seemed that Coppola may have been cowed into submission by her critics: another story of a disaffected Hollywood actor adrift in hotel world, its apparent similarities to “Lost in Translation” could scarcely pass without comment. Was Coppola playing it safe, or worse, exposing a limited creative arsenal?

The answer to both questions, happily, is no. With the wry, shimmery and thoroughly beguiling “Somewhere,” Coppola has perhaps made exactly the film she needed to at this point in her career: one that calmly takes stock of her abilities and interests rather than pushing them too severely.

The director will, inevitably, take some flak for making a third consecutive film about the alienating side effects of celebrity and privilege – but as with Woody Allen and Upper East Side intelligentsia, or Mike Leigh and Britain’s Tetley-swilling middle classes, this is the world she knows and feels, and if she feels a responsibility to keep circling back to it in her work, then she should do so.

None of which is to say that the film has nothing new to offer: her first U.S.-set project since her now decade-old debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” it’s also her first film – coincidentally or not, made after becoming a mother – to examine notions of family with any real clarity. Argue for “Suicides” if you will, but while that blissed-out youth postcard centers on a family, it’s not really about family: “Somewhere,” on the other hand, begins as a solo portrait of Stephen Dorff’s scuzzy movie star Johnny Marco, holed up indefinitely in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont like the manboy counterpart to Kay Thompson’s Eloise, before deftly folding in a network of relationships with his ex, his brother and, most crucially, his daughter to assess the mark left by the unaccompanied life.

Within minutes of meeting Johnny on screen, the on-paper parallels to Bill Murray’s Bob Harris retreat to the back of the mind: younger and less secure in his skin, his loneliness is longer-standing and his discontent more deeply ingrained. Coppola chooses to follow Dorff through a fragmented sequence of activities before he is afforded a word of dialogue, inviting us to assimilate the man through externals: his gaze, his stance, his tattoos, his faintly decaying hipster’s uniform of jeans, plaid and artfully scuffed work boots.

It’s an appropriately distanced introduction to a man who doesn’t let much in, and Dorff underplays it beautifully, but both character and actor are unlocked when Johnny’s 11 year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) enters proceedings, and their warm, supple chemistry becomes the film’s dominant motor. Smart and self-possessed, but not preternaturally sage the way Hollywood so often likes its pre-adolescent girls, Cleo is able to take care of herself in ways that become increasingly poignant the more hints Coppola drops as to her upbringing thus far; it turns out that father and daughter are mutually reliant at alternating periods.

Both actors are a delight: it’s higher praise than some might think to declare this Dorff’s finest hour, but it’s nonetheless a watershed performance that reflects on his established screen persona while rumpling it with softer accents. Fanning, meanwhile, is a quietly rewarding screen presence, perceptive rather than precocious, and possessed of one of the most deliciously subtle death-glares in the business.

For her part, Coppola has shifted (if not necessarily upped) her game too: always languid, her filmmaking has never before been this patient, lingering long past the obvious cutting point in observational scenes in a manner that will bewitch some and enervate others.

This studied approach allows certain stretches of the film to gather emotional momentum from relatively mundane beginnings, as in an exquisite ice-skating sequence incongruously choreographed to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” (Yes, the film sees Coppola embracing Top 40 pop, though Phoenix are still on hand to provide the requisitely lovely art-indie score.)

Trading her regular DP Lance Acord for the great Harris Savides, meanwhile, is a move that pays off handsomely: as he also demonstrated earlier this year in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” Savides is able to make a virtual character of the hot, bleached Los Angeles light that appears to be complicit in Johnny’s disorientation. That I’m talking about light as a character should probably tip you off that Coppola is at her most low-key in “Somewhere,” but there’s barely a note in this moving, finely wrought miniature that isn’t in key either.

[Images: Focus Features]

→ 23 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

23 responses so far

  • 1 9-03-2010 at 6:26 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    I must ask my regular question for these sort of festival posts: Oscar potential?

  • 2 9-03-2010 at 6:27 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Unlikely, I’d say, though both Dorff and Fanning deserve consideration.

  • 3 9-03-2010 at 6:30 am

    James D. said...

    Fantastic to hear. Coppola strikes again.

  • 4 9-03-2010 at 6:34 am

    Nick Davis said...

    Man, you really are implacable, Duncan!

    “Honey, I got SHOT on the way home from the movie I saw!”
    “Did the movie have Oscar potential?”

    But all of us on this site are nuts about the same things, so I’m just chuckling, not making fun.

    Another great review, Guy, and I’m glad to have at least one strong vote that Coppola hasn’t already reached her limits.

  • 5 9-03-2010 at 6:34 am

    Matthew Lingo said...

    Great review. Was already blown away by the trailer, so glad to hear it’s as good as you say it is.

  • 6 9-03-2010 at 6:37 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    Guy, I couldn’t be more happy to hear that. That’s all I was looking for after seeing the trailer for this film. A great film, not weighed down by the pressure of Oscar consideration. I’m really looking forward to this.

  • 7 9-03-2010 at 6:48 am

    billybil said...

    Another evocative piece.

  • 8 9-03-2010 at 7:19 am

    Will said...

    “The director will, inevitably, take some flak for making a third consecutive film about the alienating side effects of celebrity and privilege”

    Probably, but I think there’s no shame in producing art about what you know. I think all of her films have been about what’s it’s like to be the center of attention and unsure of how to deal with it. This can’t be that far from how she felt growing up. She’s interested in a specific set of themes., and I’m happy to go along with her.

  • 9 9-03-2010 at 8:04 am

    The Dude said...

    Glad you liked it, Guy. Music has always been a big part of Coppola’s movies…did it play a big role here, too? Specifically, how was the score by Phoenix? Anything special (I don’t really care if it’s Oscar-worthy, just whether or not it’s good…I’ve seen them in concert, and they’re amazing, so I’m curious)?

  • 10 9-03-2010 at 8:25 am

    Tye-Grr said...

    Sounds good! I’m glad Elle Fanning is getting parts like this. I think she and her sister are both great, but Dakota used to get the bad rep for being precocious, so it’s interesting that you say Elle’s character and performance avoids that. Dorff looked good in the trailer, and I really like Coppola the writer, so I’m trying really get into Coppola the director.

  • 11 9-03-2010 at 9:59 am

    Michael said...

    Excellent review Guy! When I am on the fence about a film, your reviews will either sway me towards or further away depending on your take. I thought this trailer looked “lovely” but the film just looked really shallow and surface-y to me. I am glad to read that there is more going on in the film and that it is actually an enjoyable viewing experience. I personally enjoyed Coppola’s “Virgin Suicides” a whole lot, I thought “Lost in Translation” was well performed but I never really cared for it that much, but I absolutely adore everything about “Marie Antoinette.” I am definitely more interested in this film now based on your review.

    p.s. – I don’t care what anyone says but I absolutely love Gwen Stefani and especially “Cool” and the thought of a film creating a poignant moment with that song playing makes me extremely happy.

  • 12 9-03-2010 at 10:09 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    @Michael: “Cool” is a great song. Didn’t mean for “incongruously” to come off as a diss.

    @The Dude: I do mention the score in the piece. It’s ambient but pretty sparely applied.

    @Nick: You just made me snort in the middle of the press room. Thanks.

  • 13 9-03-2010 at 10:39 am

    Aaron G said...

    ” . . . I think there’s no shame in producing art about what you know.”

    it’s what separates an artist from a dilettante. was john cassavetes a young black girl? of course not. but that didn’t stop him from making a film about the experience of being a young black girl in 1950s america. nor did it stop him from making a film about the struggles of being a housewife in 1970s america.

    an artist pushes herself to see beyond just her limited scope. coppola is completely incapable of doing this. i’m not saying this always reaps worthy dividends, but at least make the attempt. coppola has made several films now and they’re all the same thing, about the same people. she’s a less embarrassing tim burton.

    also, i’m going to go out on a limb and guess that even though the movie takes place in l.a., there aren’t any significant non-white characters in it, amirite?

  • 14 9-03-2010 at 11:35 am

    James D. said...

    Aaron G, is it any coincidence that Scorsese’s best films revolve around an Italian-American subculture he grew up in?

  • 15 9-03-2010 at 12:30 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Aaron G: To be fair, as much as she tailored the material to her own perspective, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Coppola’s last film was set in 18th-century France. Just a minor detail.

  • 16 9-03-2010 at 3:44 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    Would Fanning be considered Supporting or Lead?

  • 17 9-03-2010 at 4:04 pm

    daveylow said...

    I don’t care if this movie gets Oscar nods, I really want to see this after reading three positive reactions in a row. And so glad Dorff finally is in a good movie. I hope the film doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

  • 18 9-03-2010 at 4:05 pm

    daveylow said...

    I don’t think The Virgin Suicides was anything like Lost in Translation.

  • 19 9-03-2010 at 9:12 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’m just glad to hear some positive feedback on this. How I see the Coppola bashers (well, “bashers” is an odd term, but we’ll go with it) is because it’s not that she’s making films with the same theme it’s that she’s making films with the same theme AND RICH PEOPLE. Some people get really uppity about people like Coppola daring to say that with all the money and privilege in the world, even the life of a rich person can be hard. A very “boo hoo, try having a mortgage and no job” mentality as if its Sofia’s fault that he father is who he is.

  • 20 9-06-2010 at 11:42 am

    Leone said...

    Glas Stephen dorff is finally tackling something serious and that he shines at it.

  • 21 11-05-2010 at 12:45 am

    Glenn said...

    Just saw this yesterday… absolutely bewitching.