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Somewhere


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.
Dorff apparently spent time living in the Chateau Marmont, acquainting himself with the strange, insular atmosphere of the hotel.  Coppola celebrated her 21st birthday there.  The film certainly benefits from an insider's knowledge, utilizing incidents for which the hotel is infamous.  When Johnny looks down to a lower balcony and a woman in a red bikini takes off her top in a come hither gesture, one suspects the episode is not without precedent.  On another occasion, Johnny returns to his suite and sees a woman at the end of the corridor, having her hair done while topless, a blase expression on her face.   He runs into Benicio Del Toro in an elevator, dressed in high thrift store chic, this apparently an homage to the rumored encounter Mr. Del Toro had with Scarlett Johannson in one of the Chateau's elevators.  Perhaps most memorably, Johnny is again on his way back to his suite when he encounters the "vampire models " (so credited), who appraoch him before turning  into a room for a photo shoot, the slightly surreal mood of the brief sequence enhanced by the flashing of bulbs from the open door and dreamy lack of  focus from which the darkly gowned models emerge.  

In Johnny Marco, Sofia Coppola has sketched a character more than drawn one, perhaps intentionally.   When Johnny is at a press conference to publicize one of his films already wrapped, he's questioned by an international press corps.  The questions are surprisingly existential - clearly, this is not the TMZ crowd - culminating with an almost comic "Who IS Johnny Marco."   The actor has no answer for that one.

 At the very least, one can usually credit Coppola for her understatement.   Johnny is not a man of extremes, good or bad.  When his attention can be got, he's agreeable enough.   At his worst, there are no bad boy rages, mainly indifference.   Coppola's elliptical script hints at promised phone calls never made, budding relationships abandoned.  He meets a woman at a party in his suite, brings her back to his bedroom then falls asleep in the midst of cunnilingus.   Another satisfied customer.  He occasionally receives texts from an unknown number, which begin with "Why do you have to be such an asshole?" and continue in a similarly ungenerous tone.  They could be coming from a woman long forgotten, but would seem to emanate as dispatches from the universe, or perhaps the actor's own subconscious.  



As always, Ms. Coppola has cast her film carefully.  Stephen Dorff has always looked the movie star.   The fact that he's never quite broken through with mainstream success, despite promising early work in films like Backbeat and I Shot Andy Warhol, adds to the nebulous air of celebrity around him.  In Johnny's de rigeur uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, he's still in possession of boyish good looks and a lean frame, the fallback smile all the more arresting for his tendency to squint slightly with his left eye while employing it. 


Elle Fanning in Somewhere (2010)Johnny's largely a solitary existence is broken by the arrival of his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning - yes, another Fanning).  Cleo first announces herself by signing her father's arm cast - an earlier scene saw him fall down a flight of stair at the hotel, to the bemusement more than concern of a group of hangers on - one morning while he's still asleep.   The autograph occurs at the start of a planned visit, but when the Cleo's mother needs to leave for an indefinite period, the father and daughter are together again for a more extended period until  it's time for her to report to camp.   Johnny and Cleo are often more like two children hanging out than father and daughter.   They play Rock Band in his suite, binge on gelato one night in a ridiculously luxurious Milan hotel, sun poolside at the Chateau.    

While they're in Milan, Johnny makes a rare departure from his usual wardrobe to don coat and tie for an Italian awards show.   Cleo is made up and draped in an elegant dress.   When she comes into the room, she elicits a predictable "bellisima" from one of those schmoozing with her actor father.  An obligatory comment perhaps, but it's almost an understatement in Elle Fanning's case.  The child is radiant.   Her Cleo seems like the sort of kid who responds to an uncertain family situation with a good natured self-sufficiency.  More than once we see her preparing food in the kitchen of her father's suite.    Lest we think the golden-haired, figure skating little chef a little too together, there is a later breakdown in the Ferrari as she contemplates a future when neither parent's presence can be counted upon. 

When Johnny allows a woman to stay the night in their Milan suite, Cleo demonstrates her tacit disappointment the next morning not with the pouty, downturned lips of a child, but with the arched brows and disapprovingly dilated eyes of an adult.   She might just be the most mature person in the relationship.   And Fanning, given a fairly broad role to fill out as does Dorff, might be the better of the two here.  

If all of this, the hermetic actor's existence, sequestered as he is in a luxury hotel, if it sounds rather familiar, it should.  All of Coppola's films have involved characters living in one sort of gilded cage or another.   Somewhere is no different, certainly not far removed from the director's superior Lost In Translation.   Most of what Ms. Coppola sets out to do this time she does well.   But she's telling a version of a story she's told before.



 The fact that we're focused on a father/daughter relationship is a superficial difference, but Cleo is in a way stand-in for the Scarlette Johannson character in Lost in Translation; a woman young enough to be the main character's daughter has become the daughter.  There was as much wisdom imparted about the ups and downs of family life in a brief conversation between Bob and Charlotte in a Tokyo hotel room as there is in the entirety of Somewhere.   The two films also share a very similar scene, their actors reluctantly guests on national television shows in Japan and Italy which show the respective cultures at their overstated worst.
   
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.  




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