By david roark
January 21, 2011
As entrancing as her prior works have been, Sofia Coppola has, in some ways, been rightfully criticized for being all style, no substance. Films like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette embody an emotional and visual allure that we can’t get away from, but their lack of depth constrains them from any level of greatness. They don’t really possess moral value, nor do they enlighten our view of human experience. In Somewhere, nevertheless, Coppola finally shows that she has something to say. The film, a dark glimpse of Hollywood but a beautiful picture of redemption, turns out to be her most personal, her most meaningful and her most accomplished picture yet.
An autobiographical commentary on Hollywood and, thus, American culture, Somewhere centers on American actor Johnny Marco, brought to life through an underplayed turn from Stephen Dorff. Handsome and sloppy with the perfect amount of stubble on his face, Johnny appears to be an influential celebrity. Outsiders perceive him as some kind of god. But we soon learn that behind the camera he leads a sad, meaningless life. In an early scene, he is shown sitting on his couch alone, smoking and drinking, trying to think of something to do, something to distract from his pain. Evoking the final sequence of The Social Network, it characterizes a man who, despite having everything, still feels severed and empty.
Johnny’s despondency, in and of itself, exposes an untruth of culture, in which excess is defiantly praised and used to mask brokenness—particularly with celebrities. Johnny has it all: money, power, women ... lots of women. A sex addict of sorts, he spends his days sleeping with as many women as he pleases. They flash him from balconies and wait for him at their doors, giving up their bodies freely, only to slander him through texts later on. Midway through the film, Johnny hooks up with a complete stranger during a party at his flashy Chateau Marmont apartment, but before they can even satisfy their lust, he falls asleep on her. Johnny’s sexual indulgence and failed attempts at such reflect he has everything he could ever want except for what really matters.
All through Somewhere, Johnny drives around in his shiny black Ferrari. In the intentionally slow, visually stylized opening sequence, he drives around and around on a track in the middle of the desert. Later, out on a casual ride, he sees an attractive woman drive by and follows her to the entrance of her home. Johnny’s posh sports car, a symbol of his status, depicts the truth of who he really is. He’s glamorous on the outside but hollow on the inside, and his life moves in circles, going nowhere. Like his own privilege, the car, moreover, gives Johnny a facade to hide behind. And as vain and unfulfilling as it might be, its sense of security makes it difficult to walk away from.
When Johnny’s 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), shows up in his life, though, things change. He begins to find what he needs to confront and, eventually, overcome his hell of a lifestyle. At first, their relationship seems stagnant. Johnny realizes he’s been a poor excuse of a father after discovering Cleo to be a talented little ice skater, but he stills retains a friendship with her instead of a much needed father-daughter bond. The more time they spend together, however, the closer Johnny gets to fulfilling that role, which inevitably begins to unveil his self-deception. And when he’s forced to take Cleo on a trip to Italy, that becomes more apparent than ever.
In a fancy Italian hotel, they go on a swim together. During an entertainment awards ceremony, Cleo watches laughingly as her father reluctantly takes center stage for an unrehearsed dance routine. The entire trip portrays the transition of their relationship and, at the same time, Johnny’s self-awakening. This becomes the most evident in a breakfast scene where Cleo, after seeing a strange woman in their hotel room, understands that her father slept with the woman the previous night. At the table, Cleo stares into Johnny’s eyes and gives him her disapproval. While it happens so quickly that it could easily be overlooked, in this moment Johnny surely confirms within himself that he has to stop—that he can’t keep living this way.
As subtly as it all plays out—as usual, Coppola refuses to make a sentimental piece of cinema—the platonic love story between Johnny and Cleo is the catalyst for Johnny’s redemption. Functioning like that of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, the connection, and ultimately Cleo’s eventual departure for summer camp, gives Johnny what he needs to move forward. It gives him the courage to let go of vanity or, perhaps, celebrity as we know it. As this takes place, in an obviously symbolic walking away from the black Ferrari, we have no other choice but to see it as Johnny’s anticipated liberation, as well as optimism in Coppola’s perspective of Hollywood.
Signifying her breakthrough as a filmmaker, the subtle yet powerful moment marks what’s been missing from all Coppola’s films. Somewhere still has the charm of previous works. The visuals and cinematography, though still recognizably hers, in fact seem more mature and less showy. The hip soundtrack by Phoenix (her life partner Thomas Mars’ band) fits the tone of film almost perfectly. But unlike her previous films, which are still significant in their own right, this one leaves an imprint you don’t just visualize and feel, but that you can actually contemplate. Through Coppola’s refreshing view of Hollywood, Somewhere turns out to be a story of love, redemption and, most importantly, a story with meaning.