It begins with a Ferrari driving around in circles. And around. And around.
Nobody does luxury ennui like Sofia Coppola. We follow that particular sports car to no particular destination many times during her fourth feature, Somewhere, a picture boasting almost as many aimless driving sequences as The Brown Bunny. It’s more of a vibe than a movie, with some exquisite moments of existential drift. The atmosphere enticing—I wish it added up to more.
Stephen Dorff stars as Johnny Marco, a douchebag Hollywood action hero killing time at the Chateau Marmont between press junkets for his latest crap blockbuster and the start date for his next piece of junk. Johnny gets rude texts from unremembered women he’s slept with, gazes at strippers with lackadaisical disinterest and smokes a lot of cigarettes. There’s no sense of panic to his malaise, nor does he seem particularly haunted by it. He’s just kind of there.
We’ve been through this with Coppola before, of course. Her lovely Lost in Translation kicked off with Bill Murray as a similar movie star stumbling through Tokyo in a self-loathing, alcoholic blur. But that was only the beginning—in Somewhere, it’s the entire meal.
The other problem is that, to put it politely, Stephen Dorff is no Bill Murray. His boyish face holds the camera’s gaze, but he’s not up to suggesting the inner life Murray can pull off with a simple uptick of an eyebrow. Murray’s made a second career out of staring soulfully into the middle distance for a reason—he’s very good at evoking a lifetime’s worth of baggage behind those sad clown eyes. Dorff just has the bland, vaguely familiar looks of somebody your older brother used to hang out with in college.
Things look like they might take a turn when Johnny’s estranged daughter Cleo comes for a few days’ visit, mostly consisting of lounging around and goofing off with Dad. Played by Elle Fanning with that peculiar brand of Fanning precocity that makes you wonder how those girls were raised, Cleo is on the cusp of womanhood and already much more of an adult than her father. Johnny’s not that awful of a dad, but he just doesn’t seem to know her very well or really understand what it means to be a parent. Their interactions feel stunted, always on the verge of a breakthrough that never quite arrives.
And that’s as good a way as any to describe the movie as a whole—Somewhere is a series of ephemeral moments that just kind of slip away. Much like Coppola’s last feature, Marie Antoinette, it conjures a lush mood, presents a protagonist in a gilded cage and then drifts off into the ether—lacking not just a third act, but a second. Uncoincidentally, the two movies also both have a feel of an excellent short subject stretched to feature length.
There’s also the inherent difficulty with feeling sorry for a filthy-rich movie star who lives in a hotel and is drowning in pussy. Johnny Marco’s life is clearly empty, but checking out that Ferrari and his endless procession of blondes, one can’t help but be reminded of Woody Allen’s old punch line about sex without love: “As far as empty experiences go, it’s top-notch.”
Another thing that came to mind was the term “White People Problems,” but reading some of the stupidly hostile notices that have greeted both Somewhere and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture made me back off that line of argument.
The dismissive, misogynist term “Rich Girl Cinema” has been kicking around online a lot lately—as if tons of nonrich people of any gender are out there making movies. It’s curious how often Coppola and (to a lesser but parallel extent) Dunham are criticized for being born lucky and writing what they know, considering how many equally privileged male counterparts doing the same sort of thing get off scot-free. Why not the same rancor against Noah Baumbach, or Spike Jonze?
Somewhere might not come together in the end, but this is nonetheless the work of a singular talent with a distinctive voice. Watch Coppola’s timing in a marvelous early scene with Michelle Monaghan, in an uncredited cameo as one of Johnny’s former co-stars/conquests. The two grit their teeth and fake-smile through a promotional photo op, Johnny characteristically clueless as to why she’s so steamed. (We aren’t told, but can imagine.) Coppola allows the unpleasant exchange to play out in full, patiently waiting until the last possible moment, before, almost as an afterthought, cutting to a wide shot that reveals Johnny has spent this entire time standing on an apple box so he’ll look as tall as her in the photos.
The movie needed more funny grace notes like that. Maybe a little less driving.
Starring: Stephen Dorff
Running time: 97 minutes