by Tony Dayoub
As many of you have noticed, this blog has lain fallow since just before Thanksgiving. Initially, a vacation was to blame but recently, the cause has been the overwhelming amount of end-of-year movies I've had to watch (not a bad thing). In the next few days I hope to publish a few catch-up posts that will address all the movies I haven't had time to write about. Meanwhile, everything old is new again, especially if you weren't able to read it the first time. Many of you have complained about your inability to successfully click through to my work for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen. So now that the magazine folded I will begin reposting the columns I wrote for Wide Screen (in their entirety) to plug holes in my writing schedule. This review was originally published on 12/22/2010.
It's disappointing to conclude that writer-director Sofia Coppola’s latest, Somewhere, causes me to reassess her earlier film, Lost in Translation, in addition to her own potential as an artist. It's not that Somewhere is bad, or even dull. The strong performances by its two leads, Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, along with Harris Savides’s handsome photography of a lustrous West Hollywood give one plenty to admire. But the superficiality of a tale rooted in the privileged director’s navel-gazing overwhelms the tender story of the relationship between a young actor and his daughter.
Almost the entire first half of the breezy 90-plus-minute Somewhere is devoted to setting up its central character, Johnny Marco (Dorff), as a vacuous pretty boy living it up at the Chateau Marmont. After breaking his arm in what must be the most inept fall down a flight of stairs ever filmed, the viewer hangs out with Marco as he “recovers,” getting frequent visits from twin strippers (the movie kind that never take their clothes off) whose cheesy tandem dancing puts Marco to sleep even faster than it does the audience. Marco dines alone, comes back to his room at the Marmont to find a party he was unaware of, bags almost every woman he runs across. Yes, life is tough... and empty, according to Coppola. Somewhere only rouses when Marco's daughter Clio (Fanning) shows up to spend time with her dad.
One can’t be sure whether the movie’s awakening is deliberate or a result of Coppola’s familiarity with Clio’s circumstances or both. Somewhere only rings true when Clio has to deal with the baggage/benefits attached to her father’s celebrity: flying to Italy with her Dad at the last minute for one of his premieres; calling up room service at a ritzy suite (complete with its own indoor swimming pool) in order to sample every flavor of gelato on the menu; glaring at the intrusion of an ex-girlfriend on what was supposed to be a private breakfast between her dad and herself; ordering simple ingredients like butter and eggs from the staff at the Marmont in order to make dinner at home. One cannot help but wonder if these are examples taken from Coppola’s own frustrating life as the daughter of a celebrity director. So strong is the whiff of her desire to work out some of her personal issues in this film that it recasts her previous work in a new light.
Lost in Translation now looks less like a May-December romance than a story of a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) unable to come out from under the shadow of her artist-husband (Giovanni Ribisi) without the help of a fantasy father figure/actor (Bill Murray), both men representing Coppola’s conflicted feelings about her father, Francis. Go even further back to her father’s flawed New York Stories segment, the muddled “Life Without Zoë” (which Sofia co-wrote in her teens) and one finds further evidence of the younger Coppola’s propensity for wish-fulfillment storytelling, here attempting to reframe the lonely life of a privileged young girl as one full of intrigue, lavish parties and even romance. In the same vein, Somewhere is a lame attempt to both excuse and indict her father for neglecting her upbringing. At times, she seems to sympathize with him, particularly when she lumps Marco and Clio together as strangers lost in the strange land of Italy, where the dancing girls and aggressive interviewers accost the two in Italian, leading to a disconnect which recalls Federico Fellini's “Toby Dammit” segment from Histoires Extraordinaires, of all things. Other times, Coppola punishes him, depicting Marco as rudderless in LA when Clio goes away to summer camp after a short stay with him.
Somewhere hedges its bets by casting Dorff and Fanning, both gorgeous actors who literally whitewash all of the complicating ethnicity out of the two characters who serve as stand-ins for the Coppolas. The effect is one that emphasizes the same glossy Hollywood veneer Sofia Coppola is criticizing, with Somewhere ending up as a conflicted response to her own self-analysis. Coppola is hedging, allowing one to see the film as both a love letter to Los Angeles and an attack on its value system without firmly standing on either side of the issue. The problem is that this recurring theme makes Coppola’s range seem more and more limited with each passing film.