An American actor feeling disconnected from his surroundings, adrift in a state of silent ennui. A girl whose entrance into his world rustles him awake and gives him a newfound sense of purpose, even as it also places a magnifying glass over the crucial things missing from his life. The central setting: an illustrious, exotic hotel. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (2006's "Marie Antoinette
"), "Somewhere" is something of a companion piece to her most notable masterwork, 2003's "Lost in Translation
," the narrative and thematic similarities marked but also, one suspects, unorchestrated. As the daughter of famed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia grew up in a day-to-day environment different from most children's, but one that has given her limitless first-hand knowledge and experience. She understands this specific milieu of wealthy vagabondism, listless, unsettled days of potential excess interspersed with meticulously scheduled obligationsattending press conferences and awards shows, going on promotional tours, etc.and brings to her depiction an unfaltering, eye-opening, at times ridiculously funny honesty. Beneath all that is an innate emptiness that should speak to all viewers; not everyone has money to burn or jobs in the entertainment industry, but we all, to some extent, face the routine of our own lives and occasionally question what it's all about, and what kind of impact we're making on others. If any cinematic auteur working today is capable of making better films about existential crises and the power of human connection, they clearly have yet to put page to screen.
At the start of "Somewhere," thirtysomething movie actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is introduced not by his face, but by the car he drives, a sleek black Ferrari that he races around an empty circular track, not getting anywhere. Filled with days off in between his irregular work calendar, Johnny holes up at West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, floating through seemingly endless hours of tedium. It's not out of the ordinary to walk in on parties happening right in his room, or to fall asleep in the midst of sex with whichever beautiful stranger finds her way to his bed first. His suite even comes with the accommodation that paid pole dancers provide. At other times, though, he's left to his own devices in a wave of solitude, not really knowing what to get into. All this changes when he suddenly finds himself caring for bright, easygoing 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), whose mother has skipped town for unspecified reasons. Without knowing when she'll be back and Cleo's summer camp not starting for a few weeks, Johnny must make the best of the situation, lugging her along with him to Italy where he's due to accept an award. Otherwise, their days are long and free, the two of them bonding in a way that they never quite have before. All is well now, but Cleo is scared about what will happen after camp if her mom doesn't return. As for Johnny, he knows he hasn't been around enough as a fathera fact that only further adds to the realization that the life he's been leading now seems nothing but superficial to him.
Too often these days, movie characters aren't given the chance to fully come alive as believable, three-dimensional people, their actions instead dictated by the requirements of the plot. Writer-director Sofia Coppola recognizes this deficiency in modern cinema and has gone on a crusade, whether intentional or not, to correct it. Her characters, free from being at the service of the screenplay, are the main attractions, and where things go in the narrative is decided by what they naturally do as living entities. Indeed, "Somewhere" is fictional, but watching it is akin to eavesdropping on real lives in motion. A certain amount of artifice can usually be spotted in any film, but there is none here; each moment is as authentic as the previous one, ravishing in its ability to say so much with such deceptive simplicity and all the more intensely moving because of it.
The editing by Sarah Flack (2009's "Away We Go
") is measured and deliberate, but also absolutely crucial to the film's impact. She and Coppola do not push the plot forward like an Attention Deficit Disorder sufferer hooked on MTV, but take their time observing the characters, their relationships, and the unspoken words and glances that pass between them. By lingering on each scene, they force the viewer to consider the meaning and inferences behind them. As a result, the picture's beats and its every moment takes on a newfound heartbreaking beauty. The early scenes of Johnny whiling away his hours at the Chateau Marmont and the surrounding areas of Hollywood without much to do emphatically put us next to him, feeling what he's feeling (or not feeling, which the case sometimes is). These early passages finally collide with a press junket for his upcoming film, the tension thick between himself and his attractive co-star Rebecca (Michelle Monaghan) as they nonetheless smile for the flashing cameras. Afterwards, the questions thrown Johnny's way by the media are mundane in the extreme"Did you study acting? What's your workout routine?"but all the more painfully funny because they are so authentic. Another scene where Johnny drops by an effects shop to get a mold done of his head for an upcoming part, his face trapped behind mounds of plaster with only two narrow nose holes to breathe out of, holds on this uncomfortable occurrence to the point where the viewer begins experiencing the same claustrophobic feeling. When a make-up test is done and the still relatively youthful Johnny is suddenly faced with an old, wrinkled man staring back at him in the mirror, his reaction is one of amused disbelief until he starts to consider how quickly he is apt to become this aged version of himself. For a heartthrob working in Hollywood, it's not exactly comforting.
The entrance of Cleo into the story is like a beacon of light. Johnny is separated from Cleo's mother, and we get the sense that they don't see much of each otherat least, not as much as either would like. Refreshing in how well-balanced she is depicted, on the cusp of teenagehood but still young enough to just be happy that she gets to spend time with her dad, Cleo has not yet been overtaken by mopey moods or rebellion. When she performs an ice skating routine for Johnny to the sounds of Gwen Stefani's "Cool," it turns into a gorgeous tour de force
of silent rumination on his part. Cleo is just pleased to be showing her father what she's learnedwhen he asks her afterwards how she skates so well, she tells him she's been taking lessons for yearsbut for Johnny, it is a reminder of all that he is missing in her life and how quickly she's growing up. The next time the two of them see each other, it is under strained circumstances. Cleo's mother claims she needs time by herself, so Johnny has no choice but to care for her for several weeks straight until it is time for her to go to summer camp. Writer-director Sofia Coppola does not pull her characters where she wants them to go, nor does she judge them. Instead, she allows the camera to step back and observe what happens next as Johnny and Cleo grow closer, travel out of the country for his work obligations, and simply spend time together. Cleo is not a foolshe knows very well what her dad has been doing when a strange woman eats breakfast with them one morningbut she does yearn for guidance, her vulnerable side the one she's cautious to reveal.
One of the most lovely sections of "Somewhere" comes at the end of the second act. With camp beckoning, Johnny and Cleo spend a final lazy afternoon together, sheltered among the grounds of the Chateau Marmont. They share an underwater tea party. They play table tennis. They sunbathe by the pool, fresh lemonade in glasses by their side. As "I'll Try Anything Once" by The Strokes wistfully floats across the soundtrack, the film takes on a still, aching transcendence. At this moment, Johnny and Cleo cease being manufactured screen creations and take on the life of people we've gotten to know and love, flaws and all. The scenes that follow are just as exquisitea heartbreaking exchange between father and daughter in Johnny's car; a stop in Las Vegas that achieves more with a single exterior shot courtesy of cinematographer Harris Savides (2010's "Greenberg
") than most movies set in Sin City do in two hours; and a parting of ways that finds Johnny only able to express what he's been wanting all along to tell Cleo over the loud whirl of helicopter blades. Does Cleo hear him? It doesn't matter, really. What's important is that he said it at all.
Stephen Dorff hasn't been given a juicy, prominent leading role in what seems like forever (he most recently had supporting turns in 2009's "Public Enemies
," 2006's "World Trade Center
," and 2005's misbegotten Uwe Boll disaster "Alone in the Dark
"), but with Johnny Marco, now is most definitely the time for him to return to the spotlight. Dorff was born to play this role, perhaps because he's been through a lot of the same things and understands Johnny within the pit of his soul. For a man prone to keeping his emotions bottled upmaybe this is where Cleo gets it from?his ultimate breakdown is one of bereaved catharsis. The thought of being without Cleo is a life he no longer wants. Just as he did when he was in the old age make-up, Johnny stares in the mirror. He doesn't like what he sees.
As Cleo, Elle Fanning (2009's "Phoebe in Wonderland
") continues to get better and better, taking on increasingly demanding parts that call for more layers and substance than lesser roles that only require lines to be prattled off. Wholly at ease and naturalistic, able to go with the flow of free-form scenes and instances of improvisationa surprisingly charismatic Chris Pontius (2010's "Jackass 3-D
") gives her a run for her money as Johnny's friend SammyFanning is as extraordinary as her older sister Dakota. With literally no other performers in more than a scene or two apiece and few subplots of any sort to get in the way, Dorff and Fanning are the beating hearts of the movie.
Hypnotically photographed and sumptuously scored by Phoenix, "Somewhere" is that rare motion picture that would stay exactly as is were the liberty be given to change anything about it. Meticulous yet unrestrained, a tone poem of deep, quiet lyricism and frequent flashes of striking brilliance, the film captures with undaunted fluidity that universal feeling of not being settled in life and fearing that what we do, and have done, is not going to be enough. Amidst a glittering L.A. that no longer glitters as much as he once thought it did, Johnny knows that a change is in order, and also knows that Cleo is part of it. In concluding scenes of urgent subtlety, writer-director Sofia Coppola shrewdly leaves Johnny's destination open-ended. Where he's going is inconsequential. The point is that he's made the decision at all. Technically as well as emotionally, "Somewhere" is breathtaking cinema.