By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com November 1, 2010 at 2:48AM
We're unashamed fans of Sofia Coppola here. Obviously, she's not great in "The Godfather Part III," but as far as her directing work goes, "The Virgin Suicides" stands as one of the stronger debuts in recent memory, "Lost In Translation," despite the backlash, is still pretty excellent, and even "Marie Antoinette," with its severely miscast leads, has a lot to like, not least one of the all-time greatest soundtrack compilations. So it's with a heavy heart that we report that her fourth film "Somewhere," is the film that Coppola's detractors have been warning us about all this time, and a tedious misfire.
Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is, it would seem, a movie star. Living in the Chateau Marmont, flitting around the world for publicity junkets for his latest action film and otherwise partying his life away, sleeping with an endless series of beautiful women. When his ex announces that she's going away unexpectedly, he's left to care for his neglected daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota) for a few weeks before she goes off to summer camp, and he begins to notice the emptiness of his life.
And really, if you've read that synopsis, and seen the film's trailer, you've essentially already gotten everything out of the film that it has to offer. The film's extended opening shot is of Johnny driving a sports car in a loop around a race track, and really, Coppola couldn't have found a better metaphor for the tedious work of watching the film if she was trying. The principle problem is that that you go through the thankfully brief 98 minutes without ever really feeling anything for the central character, his situation, or anything else that you see.
It's not even that Johnny's particularly unlikable -- Dorff does at least bring a dim amiability to the part, and the character never does anything particularly monstrous: he's basically a good guy, and a decent, albeit absent father, so in the league of bad movie parents, we're not exactly talking Mo'nique in "Precious." But neither do his problems have the universality of Bob Harris in "Lost In Translation," separated from his family in a foreign land. Even the casting of perpetual nearly-man Dorff seems misjudged -- never bringing the iconic associations, star wattage or instant backstory that, oh, let's say, Robert Downey Jr, could have brought to the role. There's never really a sense of satire about the character and his Hollywood lifestyle, almost as if Coppola couldn't quite bring herself to truly condemn it, leaving the whole affair with the feeling of a film school remake of an episode of "Entourage."
In a way, it's unfair to draw comparisons with Coppola's earlier films, but with "Somewhere' so thematically of a piece with "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette," it's unavoidable, and the film comes across as a pale shadow. One wonders, if Bill Murray replaced Dorff, whether the film might at least have had the comic power of Coppola's second film -- as it is, there are a few gentle laughs, but nowhere near enough. "Marie Antoinette," meanwhile, had an equally vacuous protagonist, but there at least the director had historical context on her side, and was able to draw wider parallels with contemporary culture (the Paris Hiltons of the world, for instance) that can't really be found here.
Coppola's earlier films were as much about mood and atmosphere as the characters, but again, it's something of a disappointment on that front too. The helmer maintains a strong eye for framing, and few DoPs can play with light as well as Harris Savides. But with the latter already having delivered a far more incisive and iconic look at Los Angeles earlier in the year with Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg," and soulless hotels proving less-than-memorable locations for the most part, the mood comes off as shallow as its central character.
Even the music, possibly Coppola's strongest suit in the past, is disappointing. The song picks, including Gwen Stefani's "Cool" and the Foo Fighters' "Learn To Fly," are mostly uninspired, bar the excellent Strokes demo "I'll Try Anything Once," which scores the trailer. And as for the much-heralded score by Phoenix, the band fronted by Coppola's partner Thomas Mars, well, being the scumbag hipsters that we are, we love the band with a passion (their song "Too Young" was a highlight of the "Lost in Translation" OST), but there's very little music from them, and all of it is derived from "Love Like A Sunset Pt.1" off "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." While we didn't time it, we suspect that fans of the group could simply play the five minute, thirty-eight second original song, and hear more Phoenix music than they would in the entirety of Coppola's film.
By the end, Johnny's left sobbing into a phone, wailing about how he's "nothing," and you'd be hard pressed to disagree -- there's no real sense of charisma or internal life to Dorff's portrayal, just that he's an attractive man that we're told, but never shown, is a world-famous movie star. Perhaps that too is part of Coppola's statement on the emptiness of LA life -- indeed, every other aspect of the film, from the bubblegum pop on the soundtrack to the surface-level observation of the landscapes, seems to point to this being the director's intention. That the film comes off as vacuous as it does, however, doesn't make it any more rewarding to watch, or anything other than infuriatingly navel-gazing.
The film's sole redeeming quality comes in Elle Fanning's performance. Old beyond her years, without ever coming across as precocious as her sister, or, say, Chloe Moretz, she's very good indeed: suggesting, without ever overplaying it, a young girl who's had to essentially raise herself thanks to not one, but two irresponsible parents (even if the film never dwells on it for long enough for there to be any real emotional impact). If anything, the film could actually use more of her -- in the interminable first half of the film, she's essentially absent, and the film is even thinner in retrospect as a result.
We're convinced that Coppola has good work ahead of her yet -- she's too intrinsically talented to keep ploughing this furrow for too long. But she needs to find source material that, like "The Virgin Suicides," enables her to bring her distinctive voice to something with more substance than the likes of "Somewhere." [D]