The best movie directors aren’t just masters of technical craft: They also are artists capable of showing you the world through their eyes — of making you see and feel exactly what they do. With Somewhere, her fourth, smallest and most risky film, writer-director Sofia Coppola succeeds at the difficult task of turning moments of apparent nothingness — a scene of a man alone in a hotel room, quietly smoking; a shot of a father and daughter sunbathing at poolside — into eloquent insights into the moods and psyches of her characters. Filmed by cinematographer Harris Savides in the seductive haze that is typical of Los Angeles, Somewhere is filled with long, uninterrupted shots in which little seems to happen, but Coppola holds and holds on them, until they’re suddenly suffused with emotion.
Coppola’s previous pictures (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) all had an air of stylish artiness. Watching them, you felt they were made by someone who was experimenting with the boundaries of conventional storytelling but still observing its confines. With Somewhere, though, Coppola goes whole hog into minimalist mode: This is an intentionally fanciful, gossamer movie, extremely personal and heartfelt, influenced in equal parts by Michelangelo Antonioni (although never so elusive) and Gus Van Sant (just not quite so self-conscious).
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On the surface, the film tells the perfectly accessible story of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a hotshot Hollywood movie star who lives in the Chateau Marmont, the famed hotel that serves as hideaway (and occasional final destination) for the rich and glamorous. When he’s not making a film, Johnny hangs around the hotel, has sex with hookers, drinks and smokes, attends the occasional party, drives around in his black Ferrari and indulges in the occasional drug. He can have any woman he wants (his pick-up line is simply “Hi, I’m Johnny”) yet his life is utterly empty, and he seems neither able nor willing to do anything about filling it.
In a tricky performance that often requires the actor to convey a lot of information without saying a word, Dorff plays Johnny as a buoy drifting along with the current. Johnny’s career has brought him great wealth and fame, so he must be doing something right. But he has become completely disconnected from the world: He is as bored watching twin, pole-dancing strippers as he is at a press conference at which journalists lob inane questions.
Then enters Cleo (Elle Fanning), his 11-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother and spends the occasional weekend with her divorced dad. Cleo’s mom has gone away to take some time off from single parenthood, and Cleo shows up at Johnny’s room, needing for him to be a father for much longer than usual. So Johnny incorporates his daughter into his life, jetting off with her to Milan to accept an award on Italian TV or playing Guitar Hero with her and taking her to ice-skating practice. And gradually, silently, Cleo’s unconditional love for her father — whom she doesn’t fully understand but adores blindly — changes something in Johnny.
This all sounds a lot more trite than it plays, because Coppola rarely spells anything out in Somewhere. Instead, she simply allows her camera to observe but always points us toward memorable details. Scenes such as the one in which Cleo marvels at the size of his gigantic hotel suite in Italy make you think of Coppola’s upbringing by her famous father Francis. (She was the baby being baptized at the end of The Godfather, made cameos in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish when she was just about Cleo’s age and was torn apart by critics when she took over as Michael Corleone’s daughter from an exhausted Winona Ryder in The Godfather Part III.) But Coppola, who currently lives in New York (after a stint in Paris) and has two children, is also far enough removed from Hollywood to reflect on the movie-star lifestyle with insight and melancholy.
Somewhere isn’t merely about the hollowness of L.A.’s fast lane or a study of moneyed West Coast ennui (such as Bret Easton Ellis, minus the violence and murders). Those are shallow readings of a tender, beautiful film that demands an open heart and delves into much more universal themes, told strictly from a male perspective (a first for Coppola). This is a study of a Lost Boy who, in the process of enjoying his impossibly pampered life, forgot how to care about anything or anyone, including himself. Then he remembers and climbs back on the horse.
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Michelle Monaghan.
Writer-director: Sofia Coppola.
Producers: G. Mac Brown, Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola.
A Focus Features studios release. Running time: 92 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. Opens Friday Jan. 21 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Delray, Cinemark, Palm Beach Gardens.