Tuesday, December 21, 2010

He's Not There, But They...Are Everywhere

Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco and Elle Fanning as Cleo in Sofia Coppola's new film "Somewhere". 
Focus Features

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sofia Coppola's captivating and addictive "Somewhere" floats in your mind, its absorptive power staying with you long after the end credits roll.  Ms. Coppola's dead-on satire about Hollywood celebrity and its cultish trappings is the best film she's directed by far.  "Somewhere" opens in several cities tomorrow and in many other U.S. cities next month.  It's one of the very best films of 2010.

Actor-stuntman Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), staying at L.A.'s famous Chateau Marmont Hotel, "does all my own stunts."  One of several unintended stunts is his driving round and round in a black Ferrari in circles, on an empty stretch of road, rudderless, without direction.  He does this in two very different environs, chasing his own tail like a playful dog.  He's nothing in a land of nothingness.

Johnny, despite his movements, is a remarkably static character.  He's moving but he doesn't move; he's going through the motions, living a waking nightmare freak show, only this kind isn't the serious, high-art waking dream of "Eyes Wide Shut", it's a sunny, sanguine nightmarish trance that has "hollow" and "fake" bored deep within it.  (Instead of cell phones interrupting Bill Harford's sexual curiosities, text messages amusingly pose questions Johnny can't answer.)  Johnny is shuttled from one pretentious, staged event to another, and everyone is performing for him.  It's often exaggerated of course, from the plastic, robotic entertaining twins to perhaps even his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning).  Spectator Johnny is a coat hanger or maypole that people dance around, a phallic symbol everyone strokes.  But he isn't there.  He's impotent.  He lacks a true voice.  Even his request for no drink is repeatedly ignored by an eager publicist.

On the surface "Somewhere" is a very obvious and unremarkable film, but its depth appears in its subtlety and style.  Look at the way the film is shot.  There are long, unbroken takes, some lasting a minute or more, reminiscent of 1960s and 70s European and American films, specifically some of Stanley Kubrick's work, including his final film.  Particularly unsettling is a near-two-minute shot of Johnny sitting alone in a make-up chair, a blank slate.  Note the way Johnny is shot driving his car.  The camera angles are atypical for most scenes filmed in a car.  Johnny is forever confined, encased in steel (a car), or in a cast (on his arm), or has a cast of characters around him.  Also, note the amount of white -- white sheets, white t-shirts, white towels, white walls, white space, white cast and white people -- Johnny is surrounded by or immersed in.  He's metaphorically framed in a colorless fantasy world without definition or meaning.  The white-hot lights of stardom may shine brightly on him but there's nobody home.

There's a brief scene where Johnny watches television and sees the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi.  Listen carefully to the voice coming from the TV.  Among other things, the voice mentions that Gandhi only wore white linen cloth, symbolizing self-reliance.  Johnny wears white.  Johnny however, is anything but self-reliant.  Arguably, this scene, which many will barely notice, is important to the film.  Johnny hardly behaves as if he has the world at his feet, and doesn't appear to express any level of self-satisfaction about it.

Elle Fanning as Cleo and Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco in Sofia Coppola's new film "Somewhere".  Focus Features

Ms. Coppola has done work on privileged entertainers or the pampered famous before (the unbearable "Lost In Translation", "Marie Antoinette") but there's less wink-wink and more contemplation here.  The director isn't skewering celebrity or fame as much as she is lampooning the way people react to or accommodate it.  The non-famous or wannabe famous project their own ideas, expectations and insecurities onto the famous (i.e. Johnny).  Ms. Coppola's point isn't that the world of fame is necessarily an empty one (though it may be much of the time); it's that what accompanies fame is amorphous, lacking definition and meaning, which in turn shapes the perceptions of the famous person being pedestaled.  There's a person somewhere underneath the heaps of phony praise, overdone gyrations and the otherwise banal.  But where?

One of the most telling moments of "Somewhere" comes when a reporter asks Johnny: "Who is Johnny Marco?"  How does Johnny define himself?  Is it through his occupation?  Through his daughter?  Through the number of women who throw themselves at him?  Through his box-office hit film "Berlin Agenda"?  It's tempting to think anyone could direct a film like this, or that Ms. Coppola is drawing the bulk of "Somewhere" from her own experiences as a young child being on many a movie set and its surroundings with her legendary father, but the director herself has mentioned that a friend's young daughter was the inspiration for the Cleo character.  And there's more nuance here than one may appreciate.

A shrewd move is the casting of Johnny.  Stephen Dorff's ordinariness is perfect.  He looks like Ryan Reynolds or Thomas Jane, or a young Dennis Quaid or a younger Kiefer Sutherland.  He could be any white male actor, and that's the point.  Mr. Dorff's face is interchangeable.  Unlike George Simmons (Adam Sandler's character in "Funny People") or even Norma Desmond, Johnny is likable.  He's just wrapped in inertia and the drug of celebrity.  When he realizes he can no longer breathe into the suffocating lens of Hollywood it's anti-climatic, but it's also the first time we see Johnny understand that the bloom has long come off the rose called fame.  By this time the performances around Johnny have become more innocent and genuine.

"Somewhere" succeeds where documentaries like "I'm Still Here" fail.  Ms. Coppola is careful to keep viewers at just enough of a distance not to get too close to Johnny, yet maintains a definite closeness where we can empathize and endure his solace and isolation.  Those surrounding Johnny are far more pathetic than he.  Ms. Coppola's film, full of spaces and silences, is likely a takeoff of Joaquin Phoenix, whose staged "I'm Still Here" brought viewers too close for comfort to an egotistical and relentlessly self-indulgent lonely soul who desperately craved the very spotlight he claimed he was shunning.  (In "Somewhere" a character cites "another actor's failed transition into music", perhaps a jab at Mr. Phoenix's post-acting, floundering rap star metamorphosis.)

Ms. Coppola concentrates on the vast spaces surrounding these characters.  Her screenplay is a skeletal template.  Words are economy and ephemeral, but they dangle in the air.  In prior work, Ms. Coppola has appeared to go for the profound with her minimalist approach, but "Somewhere" isn't profound or even new so much as it is just different.  (Make sense?)  The director gets a great performance from Miss Fanning, whose charm and smarts as an actress enhance this quiet, simple yet layered character tragicomedy.  She and Mr. Dorff has a steady, believable rapport as daughter and father.  Cleo is a key fixture in Johnny's life. 

And music is again a key in Ms. Coppola's film work, the distinctive score of the band Phoenix (the lead member is the director's boyfriend.)  Music from The Strokes ("I'll Try Anything Once") and Bryan Ferry ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", closing credits) is effective, capturing an internal mood secreted deep within the main player.  The more you watch this excellent and understated film, the more you realize it's alive with feeling and meaning.  "Somewhere", one of the best films of its kind, is fun, flavorful and fantastic.

Opens tomorrow in New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, Cambridge, Chicago and Bethesda.

With: Chris Pontius, Kristina Shannon, Karissa Shannon, Laura Chiatti, Lala Sloatman, Ellie Kemper, Nunzio Alfredo "Pupi" D'Angieri, Randa Walker, Michelle Monaghan.

"Somewhere" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content, nudity and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 38 minutes.

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