Dull 'Somewhere' Goes Nowhere
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Almost everyone tuned into the sad, funny overseas angst shared by two unanchored souls staying at the same Tokyo hotel in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation." Fewer folks got the joke in "Marie Antoinette," her flashy period piece chronicling the revels of France's version of Beverly Hills teenagers, in the poshest auberge ever. Now comes "Somewhere," the third and hopefully final entry in Coppola's hotel trilogy. Despite sky's-the-limit room service, hanging out at Hollywood's legendary Chateau Marmont with Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a dumb, charm-challenged B-movie star, is a bore.
Oh, yes, we've been informed that art-house eyes are required to fully appreciate the Antonioni-esque nuances of the writer-director's latest immersion in celebrity ennui and alienation. But, to this critic's eyes, "Somewhere" looks like a La-La-Land version of the kind of movie film critic Pauline Kael once famously dubbed "Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Europe Party." The ever-acerbic Kael was referencing the existential drear that so glamorously afflicted characters in '60s foreign films like "La Notte" and "8 1/2." Affluent, attractive, even talented, these Italian sad sacks apathetically quested for meaning -- or a momentary tickle -- in nonstop wine, women and song. As they sank deeper into despair, Kael noted, we couldn't help getting off on their fruitless hedonism. Sadly, the amusements in Coppola's "Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Hollywood Party" -- pole-dancing twins, video games, wall-to-wall bimbos, watching "Friends" on Italian TV while scarfing gelato in every known flavor, etc. -- just makes you itch to get out and find something interesting to do. "But isn't that the point?" you might riposte. If Coppola's making a movie about the void that is Johnny Marco's life, shouldn't she make us experience its soul-sucking distractions?
The answer from this corner is an exasperated NO! Especially when "Somewhere" is prefaced by a symbolically heavy-handed sequence straight out of Film 101: Marco driving his Ferrari in circles out in a desert wasteland. Truth be told, that intro pretty much sums up Coppola's nowhere man and the aimless narrative we follow for the next 97 minutes or so. "Where am I?" Marco's lost soul queries the camera or God or us. It's a question Dorff should have put to his self-indulgent director, who brackets this sophomoric start with an equally lame, road-movie ending. If Coppola's working off some leftover autobiographical angst from nomadic days as the privileged kid of an über-famous dad, "Somewhere" taps out her hour of cinematic therapy. She needs to move on, cinematically speaking.
It's Marco's daughter (Elle Fanning) from an early, failed marriage who gets swept up (much too active a word) in the wake of her father's vagabond existence. When Cleo's mother, tired of parenting, offloads the 11-year-old on Johnny, his listless gaze momentarily gravitates away from his personal parade of lookalike babes -- such as the blonde in a convertible he impulsively pursues into the Hollywood hills. (Gotta wonder if this empty-headed twerp ever heard of "American Graffiti," which featured an elusive golden girl in a white convertible who incarnated a generation's dreams and desires.) Ice-dancing with elegant grace, Cleo catches and holds jaded Johnny's eye. Glowing with self-possessed light, she sweetens the stale circles in which her dad moves, and we're encouraged to imagine a reviving connection, something that might wake up this Dream Factory sleepwalker. (Once, full of pain pills, Johnny even dozes off while grazing the crotch of yet another curvaceous doll.)
Fanning's Cleo is wonderfully delicate in feature and style. For the most part, she seems to roll with whatever's going down in dad's drifty life -- though she does aim a hard glare at the phony blonde who plops down for morning-after breakfast in their Italian hotel room. Her poise and good cheer suggests she's A-OK with her life, ping-ponging back and forth between parents who seem more like kids than their daughter does. Still, the one time Cleo loses her cool, you glimpse the terror this little girl, bereft of her own secure somewhere, must occasionally experience. We feel that moment more deeply than anything else in the movie. What's harder than trying to grow up in a tribe of feckless children, forever amusing themselves to death?
The tragic-comic sure-footedness Coppola displayed in earlier films is conspicuously missing here. Too often, "Somewhere" rubs our noses in what it means -- and its soooooo all about meaninglessness. Film-school clichés and pretentious tedium don't deliver sharp, spanking-new insights -- though, given the movie's accumulation of warm reviews and several awards, many must believe otherwise. In a typically prolonged, dialogue-less take, we survey Johnny and Cleo basking like beautiful David Hockney zombies in poolside sun, the Strokes' dirge-y "I'll Try Anything Once" on the soundtrack. "There is a time when we all fail ... oh everybody plays the game ... everybody was well-dressed ... everybody was a mess." "Somewhere"'s umpteenth iteration of existential lassitude and dead-end diversion just makes this writer want to scream, "So read a book already!"
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool.") She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.