Coppola creates mood, no substance
Sofia Coppola likes to be cooped up.
In gauzy portraits of privileged isolation, the director has situated her characters in a Tokyo hotel (“Lost in Translation”), the opulent remove of Versailles (“Marie Antoinette”) and in her latest film, “Somewhere,” at Los Angeles’ celebrity-infested Chateau Marmont.
Though she gently coaxes her characters out of their insulation and toward the outside world, Coppola’s talent is in her eye for cloistered, disaffected decadence. As a style icon and daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she is, after all, portraying a life she knows intimately.
“Somewhere,” which won the top prize at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, stars Stephen Dorff as a famous Hollywood actor, Johnny Marco. He lives at the Marmont, where he lazily and indiscriminately passes the time between dutifully heeding the phone calls of his publicist.
The film opens with him in a black Ferrari monotonously circling a course, watched from an unmoving camera.
Laid up with a broken arm, he falls asleep watching private pole dancers. In one scene, he sits on a sofa drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette for nearly two minutes.
Handsome and aloof, Marco is a star in a bubble, living a vapid, easy life where adoration and sex come without even trying. When a mask of his face is made so he can look older for a part, Coppola lingers on him sitting alone, his head totally covered in plaster.
The plain message: He’s not even a person. But he has a daughter: 11-year-old Cleo (Elle Fanning), of whom he typically sees little.
Her mother, Layla (Lala Sloatman), abruptly abandons her to Marco, leaving the two to bond. He brings her along on a trip to Milan, Italy, where he’s promoting his latest action film, “Berlin Agenda.”
Quiet and smart, Cleo is generally just happy to be around her father. Perhaps like Coppola, she’s an observer. (Like any good child actor, Fanning has learned that less is more.)
Marco – a blank slate played in an appropriately inscrutable manner by Dorff – doesn’t have much to teach her. In a lengthy pan out, Coppola shows them lounging pool-side under shades, while the Strokes play: “Sit me down/Shut me up.”
As they spend more time together, there’s a transformation taking place in Marco, but it’s very subtle.
The film’s emotional breakthrough comes in just its last minutes. Will Marco shrug off banality for a life of substance? Do we care?
That last question is what decides whether “Somewhere” has any impact on you. Coppola is brilliant at capturing mood; with cinematographer Harris Savides, her languid camera depicts California melancholy. But substance isn’t her game.
As she did in “Lost in Translation,” she aims for a sudden rush of meaningfulness at the end of the film. But the weight isn’t there.
A rejection of utter emptiness is less inspiring than rather obvious. “Somewhere” ultimately passes like a soft breeze down Sunset Boulevard.
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