Thursday, May 5, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Somewhere

Got Anywhere Else? by Caitlin Murphy

Somewhere, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is about a man who decides to (spoiler alert) move out of a hotel. Okay, there’s slightly more to it than that, but not much. The film is essentially 97 minutes of watching someone you don’t really care about stumble slowly towards an epiphany that is so banal it should be called something else.

But, to cough up a summary, here it is: Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a Hollywood actor, is living a disaffected, monotonous existence in the famed hotel Chateau Marmont. Each night he guzzles beer, gazes droopy-eyed at strippers, and receives random text messages from people who understandably hate him. His 11 year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), whom he spends sporadic time with, suddenly has to move in with Marco when her mother abandons her to his care. Oh, and he broke his arm at some point, and he drives a black and very loud Ferrari.

As a protagonist, Johnny Marco is crudely drawn, and we’re meant to feel that’s the point. He epitomizes the common assumption about actors: that they are able to take on other personae because they have no defined identity of their own, as well as the common assumption about celebrities: that their lives are stupid and soulless. Indeed, the bulk of the film voices the bored celebrity: “We wander around, we pick up random amusements like Guitar Hero or ping pong… sometimes we go swimming, sometimes we don’t want to, we order ice cream in the middle of the night...” From her own background growing up as the daughter of famed filmmaker, Francis Ford, and appearing in several of his films starting from a young age, Coppola knows the vagaries of spotlit existence. To be famous is to be alien; a foreigner from a strange land, who speaks a different language. All fruitful territory that she mined very nicely in her previous, and infinitely more satisfying work, Lost in Translation.

As established in that film, and reiterated here, Coppola is also deeply interested in the effects of place, in how deeply our contexts carve themselves into us, in how inseparable setting and character can be. But Somewhere is such a pale, pale version of Lost in Translation, one that would so obviously invite unflattering comparisons, that you really wonder why Coppola felt the need to bother making it. At one point, Marco expresses to his daughter that he wished he’d been there for her more, but he does so over the noise of a helicopter, so Cleo, of course, doesn’t hear him. The moment felt like glaring self-plagiarism, a cheap repeat of the inaudible (to us) exchange between the two kindred spirits at the end of Lost in Translation. There it was moving; here it’s just lame.

Also, as an actor, Bill Murray (of Lost in Translation) is very sympathetic: just the look of him makes you want to buy him a drink or a puppy. Comparatively, Dorff is more of a blank slate and doesn’t evoke much. Though this might seem perfectly conducive to his character, there’s a difference between a man who lacks substance and a complete cipher. The risk in making films about flat, bored, unformed characters, is of course creating a film that is also flat, bored, unformed. Coppola so beautifully dodged that bullet in Lost in Translation, with great debt to Murray, but clearly didn’t manage the maneuver here.

One of the film’s major problems is that, as a storyteller, Coppola wears her themes on her sleeve. Like Johnny’s obnoxious Ferrari with its storage space in the front, she has a tendency to front-load: forwarding themes and hoping that story and character will catch up to support them. Not surprisingly this tendency often leads to plot contrivances that range from irritating to unforgiveable (such as the helicopter cited above). Cleo’s mother, for instance, who seems cool to the point of blasé when first introduced, suddenly has to abandon her daughter, and can’t promise when or if she’ll ever come back. Huh? She looked pretty darned together last seen, and suddenly she’s a total head-case with major ‘stuff’ to sort out. There’s a bit of a “have your cake and it eat it too” approach to narrative here.

One of the most promising themes that Coppola points at, but doesn’t really sink her teeth into, arises from the awkwardness of a man accustomed to treating women as disposable objects, being accompanied by his pre-pubescent daughter; Cleo is on the brink of being sexualized herself, and is clearly unimpressed with her father’s womanizing. Coppola establishes this tension early; in the first shot of Cleo, we’re actually set up to expect her to be Johnny’s fuck-buddy from the night before. There was much more interesting, complicated ground to traverse here, and I wish Coppola had taken several more steps.

Stylistically, the film reveals a fetish for the stationary, lingering camera, the long shot, and generally, for just drawing things out. Unfortunately, these choices too often feel like sophomoric signals, “meaning alerts.” As Marco sits in a make-up chair, three men create a cast of his face. When they have to leave him to “go get the bandages” (who are these people? hacks on their first day of the job?) we are left to focus on Marco, alone, his face buried under layers of grey goop. It’s an interesting image for sure, but the length of the take feels like a taking of the viewer’s hand to say, “Now, this image is important and has like, tons of meaning in it, and that’s why you’ll look at it for a long time.” In short, the lingering feels unearned so our attention feels exploited. At some point you also realize that any song that starts playing in the film will most likely be played out in its entirety. Long takes, long shots, long songs: these are bold choices, but they feel made primarily for the sake of being bold (which I think is the definition of indulgence).

Watching Somewhere, I couldn’t help but imagine Coppola’s running list of alternate titles:
Who cares
The Pool
This shirt

You see, I felt distracted watching Somewhere, the way you sometimes feel talking to a pot-head. Indeed, in many ways the film is like a pot-head: it seems to think its insights are far more profound and its observations far more clever than they actually are.

Filmmakers are commonly fascinated by one or two ideas that they just keep holding differently up to the light. And that’s just fine. But here the angle’s not much changed, and the delivery has suffered. Yes, life's gotten a bit too easy for Johnny Marco, but it seems that making movies has gotten a bit too easy for Sofia Coppola too. And, like her protagonist, she’s gonna have to start digging a little deeper. Or somewhere else.

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