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‘Somewhere’ goes nowhere, but beautifully

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

January 21, 2011

In the opening scene of “Somewhere,” the latest film from director Sofia Coppola, a Ferrari repeatedly circles around the same stretch of road, speeding in and out of frame until its exasperated driver finally steps out, confused about where exactly he’s found himself. In response, the film’s title cryptically appears. Coppola uses the next 90 minutes to illuminate just exactly where “somewhere” is and, potentially, how to get out of there. Though not as successful as her previous efforts like “Lost in Translation,” the film benefits from Coppola’s knack at beautifully framing penetrating examinations of loneliness.

That aimless driver, as it turns out, is movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a man increasingly bored with his indulgent lifestyle, which is filled with nightly parties and frequent appearances by twin pole-dancers. Johnny is forced to reevaluate his life when his ex drops off their daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) at his suite in the famous Chateau Marmont. He begins to find renewed meaning through his relationship with Cleo and realizes how his frequent absences have affected her. Whether this revelation is enough to take him out of stasis, however, is another question.

Coppola’s airy yet introspective brand of film-making has earned itself many devotees, this reviewer included. She clearly has a great visual eye, always taking great pleasure in the surroundings in which she places her characters; this is as true in “Somewhere” as it is in the rest of her oeuvre. For instance, one especially striking visual finds Johnny and Cleo enjoying an underwater tea party.

Like Quentin Tarantino, Coppola perfectly melds her visuals with great soundtracks, which sparked some controversy when she affixed a post-punk playlist to the rococo settings of “Marie Antoinette.” In “Somewhere” she turns exclusively to the band Phoenix for the film’s score; we only hear other artists when the characters listen to music.

Thematically, “Somewhere” continues her focus on narratives of loneliness, a defining characteristic of her three previous features. Though she has returned to this theme repeatedly, each of her films—from the haunting “Virgin Suicides” to the aforementioned raucous “Marie Antoinette”—feels wholly unique. In the case of “Somewhere,” she has primarily fixed her sights on Johnny, though her camera often gazes on Cleo alone.

Just as the film succeeds visually and aurally, it has been imbued with two great lead performances. Dorff, previously largely confined to B pictures, perfectly illustrates how such an emotionally careless man has coasted along for years on charm. Fanning, however, is the film’s true revelation, portraying a realistic 12-year-old without the cutesy artifice that permeates many child performances.

Unfortunately, Coppola’s script does not always serve her actors well, as their characters remain blank canvases to its end. Both are immensely likable, yet I feel like I know little about them. In focusing so much energy on illuminating the dynamic between them, Coppola fails to fully flesh out either character.

While clearly intended as a character study, the film lacks any kind of real forward momentum. “Somewhere” lacks a satisfying narrative arc. Yes, Johnny realizes that he has wronged his daughter, yet Coppola explores little beyond this. This proves especially disappointing since each scene on its own is enjoyable, whether it illustrates the excesses of Hollywood or the quiet moments that exist between parent and child. I enjoyed watching the film, but, within a few hours, it had already disappeared from my memory.

For fans of Coppola’s previous efforts in particular and small character studies in general, “Somewhere” certainly warrants a viewing—just don’t expect to see her most fully-realized work.

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