A man lies in bed in his Chateau Marmont suite, while before him twin blonde strippers in matching candy stripe dresses perform a pole dancing routine, while the Foo Fighters "My Hero" crunches out of a boombox. While this might seem to be the stuff of fantasy for most men, this particular man views the twins' playful routine with all the enthusiasm of a someone watching a documentary on knitting or furniture refinishing. He even falls asleep before the leggy twirling is finished, leaving the girls to break down their poles (which answered THAT question) and quietly excuse themselves. Clearly, there is something wrong with this guy.
The unenthused guy in question is actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). He's in the midst of an indefinite - an adjective that applies to most every aspect of his life - stay at the Hollywood landmark, discreetly situated just off Sunset Boulevard, the hotel itself almost as evocative of movie lore as the name of the street.
For about 15 relatively brave minutes, writer/director Sophia Coppola brings us into the actor's insulated existence with hardly a word being uttered. That absence of conversation or tone-setting soundtrack is the real distinction of Somewhere from her previous three features. Johnny drives his Ferrari round and round a desert oval, drinks a beer his roomy suite, generally seems at a loss as to what he should do with himself, unless beckoned via phone to one actorly task or another, the calls presumably coming from an agent or personal assistant.
|Hi, I'm Johnny. Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco, livin' la vida languid.|
The real progress for Coppola here is in the use of sound, or the lack thereof. At its best, particularly through the long, quiet takes early on, Somewhere is reminiscent of American films of the early 1970's, with mood predominating over action, even character. It's something that Vincent Gallo also achieved in his 2003 feature, The Brown Bunny. Ms. Coppola can hardly be faulted for the music pulsating through her first few films, so sure was her selection and setting of tone. But to lean too heavily upon a soundtrack is to risk creating not so much a film as a series of well modulated music videos. This time the soundtrack seems as carefully chosen, just more sparely employed, using music written for the film by the band Phoenix and a particularly judicious use of The Strokes "I'll Try Anything Once," Julian Casblancas crooning gently over an ever-evocative Rhodes keyboard while Johnny and Cleo lie poolside at the Chateau, this the closest moment to contentment he's allowed to experience in Somewhere.
Like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette (even The Virgin Suicides in its way), Somewhere ends with an escape of sorts. It's just Johnny and his Ferrari - which by this time, as is the case with the Chateau, has become something of a supporting actor, its throaty growl frequently punctuating long periods of silence - and then it's just Johnny. I thought perhaps the film would return to its first image, his driving around that remote oval. The repeated circling was an obvious enough metaphor for the state of the actor's life, of which we are made very aware in the long, static scenes that follow.
The problem for the writer/director with the comparison to 70's films of which Somewhere is at times redolent is that those earlier films generally didn't take easy outs before the credits rolled. It's not that Ms. Coppola has Johnny sauntering down the road singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" as the crucified did at the end of Monty Python's The Life of Brian. But she has created a character so empty - and here, perhaps, we encounter the difference between ambiguity and just being vague - that it's a stretch to believe that the call of fatherhood, even with such a child as Cleo, is likely to pull him out his torpor or crisis. It's easier to imagine him, as so many before, responding to the empty, albeit well-appointed life of an aging celebrity with more destructive forms of escape.
Coppola instead chooses a small, ambiguous act that seems dramatic only relative to all the inaction that has preceded it. It's an ambiguity that seems not nearly as earned as was that perfect, secret whisper between Bill Murrary and Scarlett Johannson at the conclusion of Lost In Translation.
As Somewhere concludes, Johnny might be walking away from his life, starting a new one. Maybe not. Unfortunately, Sofia Coppola definitely seems to be circling.