THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Stephen Dorff wants to be a better man for daughter Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere.
Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I also think she's one of the most underrated. Aside from much-deserved accolades (not the least of which was a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) for Lost in Translation, her films haven't made the kind of splash they deserve. Whether she's examining loneliness/isolation in Translation, exploring teenage desperation in The Virgin Suicides, or using cotton candy colors to capture a young ruler's rebelliousness in Marie Antionette, Coppola has always managed not only to entertain me but also to make me feel something. Her latest effort, Somewhere, is no different in that regard, although it does take a more low-key approach than her previous films. What that means is that some of y'all are going to call it "slow." And I won't disagree. It is slow. The difference is that, in this case, I appreciated that quality. Slow is exactly what Somewhere needs.
Stephen Dorff stars as bad-boy actor Johnny Marco. Like a lot of bad boy actors, Johnny doesn't really have a home; he instead lives at Hollywood's famous Chateau Marmont hotel - the place where Belushi died. His existence is pretty empty. He pops pills. He hangs out with his buddy (played by Jackass star Chris Pontius). For kicks, he hires twin strippers to do pole dances in his room, despite the fact that they don't have enough space to properly perform their routine. Let me stop right here for a second. The strippers are hilarious, and if this movie catches on, they could become a sensation.
Johnny is not well liked, not by the costar of his new movie (Michelle Monaghan), not by his ex, and certainly not by whoever is sending him insulting text messages. One person who does like him is his 11 year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who gets left with him for a few days while her mother goes out of town. Cleo hangs with Johnny at the hotel's pool, accompanies him to a foreign press junket and, in one scene, explains the appeal of "Twilight."
Somewhere is one of those movies that is definitely about something, yet no one ever discusses that thing. Johnny Marco may be a star, but his life has no meaning. He walks through it in a haze. Even the twin strippers don't particularly give him a thrill. But when he's in the company of Cleo, he suddenly comes alive. Pills and sex take a back seat. He feels like a normal person again. The film charts his course as he subconsciously starts to re-evaluate his life and his priorities.
Coppola takes an intentional fly-on-the-wall approach to the material. She simply lets you observe this character in his environment. If you pay attention, you see how seemingly mundane things - like playing "Guitar Hero" with his daughter - affect Johnny and bring him out of his funk. He doesn't have any big epiphanies, nor does he ever overtly express any awareness that he's changing. He simply changes. This is what I mean about Somewhere being the good kind of slow. I love the fact that Coppola does it all with such subtlety. It's so much harder to make a point this way than it would be to do it with big, obvious, dramatic moments. Enough movies do that. This one invites you to come in a little closer.
A confession: I have never liked Stephen Dorff. I've always thought he was a talentless hack who toiled mostly in direct-to-DVD fare for a reason. With Somewhere, he shows range not seen in his previous work. The guy gives a terrific performance. Dorff is authentic as a bad boy (rumor has it he knows a thing or two about that), yet also convincingly shows us both Johnny's love for Cleo and his slow realization that he desperately needs substance in his life. I love when actors surprise me, and Dorff surprised me in this film like I haven't been surprised in years. Maybe he just needed a director who knew how to utilize him in the right way.
Could Somewhere have benefited from a little more juice? Yes. Even though I valued the slowness, an occasional emotional signpost wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world. At times, the film so actively avoids such signposts that you wish it would give you some sort of recognizable story beat. Don't take that as a major complaint. On the whole, I loved this film. Coppola beautifully creates an atmosphere and then lets us soak in it. To be able to sustain that for 98 minutes is a gift.
I recommend the movie, but also recognize that not everyone will be as enamored of its unwavering subtlety as I was, so here's the litmus test: If you hated not knowing what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, you will hate Somewhere. On the other hand, if you loved the fact that Coppola didn't feel the need to tell us what he whispered, you will probably appreciate the beauty that Somewhere contains.
( 1/2 out of four)
Somewhere is rated R for sexual content, nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.