‘Somewhere’: Nowhere man

December 20, 2010

You can tell what kind of movie “Somewhere’ is going to be right from the very first scene: A Ferrari races around a not-very-long track, though we only see a portion of the oval. Once, twice, three times – and, finally, after the fourth lap, the car stops within camera range and the driver, actor Stephen Dorff, gets out and then he …

 

What? Not a lot. He stands there. Then suddenly we’re back at his hotel, Los Angeles’ fabled Chateau Marmont. He’s hanging with his friends, drinking – until he trips on some stairs and falls out of the frame. When we see him next, he’s zoned out on his hotel-room bed, with a pair of rented pole dancers. Twins, no less.

 

Other things happen in “Somewhere,” the second seriously Antonioni-esque film of this year (“The American” was the other) and one that is bound to divide viewers dramatically. The rap on this film is actually true: This is a film in which very little happens and very little is said. It starts with Dorff – as movie star Johnny Marco – driving his car and ends with him walking away from his car into an uncertain future.

 

It is the kind of movie that normally drives me crazy – one in which nothing (or very little) happens. And yet write-director Sofia Coppola grabbed me from that first scene – so obviously a challenge to an audience, so deliberate in its attack on expectations.

 

What we get are the interstices in Johnny Marco’s life – what happen when he isn’t busy being Johnny Marco the movie star and has to figure out just who the offscreen Johnny is. We see him lounging in his hotel room with friends, drinking and blankly hanging out. In that opening sequence, he’s lying on the bed in his bedroom, seemingly zoned on painkillers, his arm in a cast, while those twin dancers (coyly clothed) do synchronized pole-dancing routines on portable poles. He watches, giving the faintest hint of a smile but no other reaction (until he invites the women into his bed).

 

He has to take part in a press junket and photo sessions for his latest movie – and a brief encounter with his costar, played by Michele Monaghan, reveals just what kind of disconnect informs most relationships in his life. He barely has stock answers for the questions, looking bemused at the things people want to know about him (and like he’s not sure who he is to be answering such questions in the first place).

 

His one real bit of connection is with his pre-teen daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). She’s obviously been an afterthought in his life but he also obviously loves her when he’s with her. He just doesn’t know how to do it. Still, having spent a day with her, he seems eager to spend more – and winds up whisking her away to a press junket for the film in Venice and back again.

 

Johnny is a lost soul whose blankness translates as depth on a movie screen, apparently. But he’s obviously in some sort of existential crisis – trapped in downtime between films, uncertain who he is, who he was or who he should be. He escapes into drink and drugs and sex – but he knows that those will not save him from waking up and still being Johnny Marco.

 

Coppola’s minimalism has bothered me in the past; both “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette” seemed like films in which the look, the feel and the music were more important than the characters or the story.

 

But with “Lost in Translation,” and now with “Somewhere,” she finds a way to turn that minimalism into a gift, a style that forces you to put yourself in the mind of the character, whose reaction to what he’s involved with has little to do with what he shows to the world.

 

Dorff is an actor who’s been stuck playing over-the-top villains for the past decade of his career. But he brings a surprising soulfulness to this movie, creating a guy who has lost track of who he really is and desperately wants to find himself again. He sees his chance with his daughter, who takes him at face value, minus the glittery trappings and expectations of the movies and celebrity. Fanning holds her own, portraying a normal child of divorce who has learned to adjust to an existence that doesn’t include much of her father. She brings a sense of discovery – of a kid who relishes the chance to get to know someone who usually isn’t available for that kind of scrutiny.

 

There’s a found-art quality to “Somewhere,” a sense that Coppola has snuck up on the best moments in the film and captured them with a camera. But it’s really a beautifully constructed venture, filled with revelations that go off in your brain like little time bombs.

 

If you can swing with Coppola, if you watch the film with an understanding that it’s as much about what you don’t see as what you do, if you recognize that these are the moments that usually happen off-camera but which reveal more than what is usually shown – well, you’re in for a rich and haunting treat.

 

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