In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, we see the protagonist – Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a bad boy “it” actor loosely based on people Coppola knows and stories she’s heard – navigating in circles around a desert race track in his Ferrari. The rest of the film plays out much the same way, but for Marco, life outside of his car goes along at a more glacial pace. He barely seems to notice. He’s just there, a bit unsure as to where.
Physically, Marco lives at the fabled Chateau Marmont, the famous Hollywood hotel that’s as famous for celebrity deaths as celebrity guests, and where lavish parties seem to accumulate in his room. Emotionally, Marco is harder to locate. The twin strippers that he orders up probably brought him joy at one point, but now it’s the rich-guy equivalent of watching the same episode of Seinfeld again, just because it’s on. He’s just as content smoking a cigarette and staring at the wall. Sex is habitual to him now, not sexual, and he’s as likely to fall asleep in the middle of it as he is to finish.
It isn’t that Coppola forgot to explore the depths of Marco’s character. It’s just that the depth of Marco doesn’t exist at the moment. If he turned sideways, you might expect him to be a flat layer of fabric and skin. No life seems to stir in his eyes until the moment he looks up and sees his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo, smiling at him. In the light of her smile, we don’t see the same man that fell asleep in his place the night before.
Played beautifully by Elle Fanning, Cleo is an effervescent hit of sunshine that doesn’t otherwise exist in his world, and director of photography Harris Savides’ lighting scheme reflects this, almost as if the light were radiating from her blonde locks down onto Marco. In fact, the film’s main flaw is that there’s not enough of Cleo. Within the framework of the movie, she is just the longest lasting of the characters he brushes shoulders with. Her imprint on the tone, however, is huge because she’s the only thing that nudges Marco out of his listlessness. Unfortunately, her screen time starts too late and ends too early.
Somewhere is not so much a tone poem, as the director calls it, as it is more of a straight character piece. Coppola has left us mostly alone with the character and left the needledrop soundtrack in a drawer. At times, the film almost feels like a staring contest between audience and actor and much has to be extrapolated from the glimpses of small moments in Marco’s life that we get. He is so detached and so empty that he almost comes off as a demure middle finger to Coppola’s detractors who claim her films are filled with frivolous, moneyed characters whose drifting is something only the spoiled can experience, and thus, they have no value. Marco is the most frivolous, moneyed character of Coppola’s design yet, and his drifting is the most aimless. That does have value, and it all works in harmony with her previous films and as a standalone, as long as you give it the time to work.