Monday, January 10, 2011

Somewhere: "News flash! Money doesn't buy happiness!"

As a filmmaker, Sofia Coppola has always been most interested in the concept of alienation. I’ve always found her work to be a compelling portrait of what happens to a person when he/she is disconnected from what’s considered the norm and placed, for varying reasons, on the same shelf as the “famous” or “different.” Unfortunately, Somewhere is the least effective, and (by definition) worst film she’s ever made.

Somewhere is about Johnny Marco, (Stephen Dorff) an actor whose life is an endless series of parties, women, press junkets, and lonely nights. He sees his 11 year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) periodically, until her mother decides she needs some “time,” leaving her with Johnny, and the two spend a few weeks together.

Now, Johnny is clearly floundering in his personal life, but his career seems to be going great, as he’s obviously in demand and apparently well-liked. He’s not even a jerk, which is unusual for a movie like this. Normally, the main character would be some kind of womanizing slouch. While he’s definitely a womanizer, he’s quiet about it, and avoids becoming the stereotypically loud, flamboyant sex machine one would expect. So, if he’s not a jerk and he’s not that bad of a guy, then what’s his problem?

He’s really, REALLY bored.

Unfortunately, much of the narrative is devoted to showing us just how bored he is, which only serves to spread his condition to the viewer. Audiences like to watch character’s lives through the window of the screen, but they don’t like to be made to feel like they’re staring. Here, we watch Johnny race his car around a desert track not once or twice, but four times. We watch some very mediocre pole dancers go through multiple routines, and do you think we’re spared from seeing the whole thing? Guess again. When Johnny takes Cleo to her ice skating lesson to practice her long program, we watch . . . wait for it . . . the whole thing. When he’s sitting on the couch with a beer and cigarette, we stay with him until he’s finished the cigarette. Naturalism isn't a bad thing. In their films, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne spend much of their time following their characters around as they move through their daily lives to wonderful effect. The difference with them is that their work features strong narrative "engines" and striking characters, neither of which is the case in Somewhere.

There was a couple behind me who spent the entire film whispering back and forth to each other. After about 10 minutes, I found myself wondering what on earth they could be confused about, as nothing notable had happened on the screen. Later, one of them seemed to be using the light from the screen to clip fingernails.

In recent times, I find myself asking these questions more and more. “Why does this story need to be told? What compelled the filmmaker to go to the trouble to make the film?”If I can’t find a suitable answer for that question, then, chances are, it’s not a film I think much of. Frustratingly, Somewhere left me in that same lurch.

All in all, the characters don’t say much. I know that’s one of Coppola’s minimalist trademarks, but I would have loved to hear something interesting come out of their mouths for a few minutes. I wanted to see some kind of passionate response from them about something. Does Cleo find out about her dad’s womanizing habits? Yes. Is she significantly bothered by them? Not really. Why include this at all if it’s not going to be used to any purpose? Johnny gets anonymous text messages throughout the film telling him what a jerk he is, when the guy we’re watching doesn’t seem all that bad. It got old. Late in the film, Johnny delivers a pivotal line of dialogue that the person he’s speaking with clearly can’t hear. Is inaudible dialogue turning into a fetish for Sofia? In the oft-discussed ending of Lost In Translation, the audience can’t hear what Bob and Charlotte are saying, and it’s a beautiful moment that caps off a connection formed between two wonderfully realized characters. In Somewhere, it’s flipped around so that the audience can hear what the character can’t. It doesn’t make sense why Johnny wouldn’t have the courage to say what he needs to straight out in a quieter moment. It would have been much more meaningful and would have been in keeping with Johnny’s character. As it’s delivered, the words "cliché" and "cheeseball" come to mind, two words that, in a perfect world, would never be used together.

And what’s with the music??? Normally, Sofia Coppola’s choice and placement are impeccable. Most of Somewhere doesn’t have any kind of soundtrack, and, when music is actually used, it’s very quiet. I wanted something like the glorious “Girls” from the beginning of Lost In Translation or “What Ever Happened” from Marie Antoinette. SOMETHING. Instead, almost all we get are songs that we’ve already heard because we’ve seen the trailer 1500 times, and we don’t even get to properly hear them. If you’re going to play that Strokes song again, can you at least turn it up so I can hear it? It’s a good song. However, there is a big bright spot in the form of a song called "Teddy Bear." It's performed by a guy named Romulo who accompanies himself on a wonderfully out-of-tune classical guitar. It's charming, endearing, and, in a microcosm, everything Somewhere would like to be.

Perhaps the biggest problem that arises in the film is the fact that Johnny just isn’t a terribly compelling character, and Stephen Dorff’s work isn't anything to write home about. The character operates on a very narrow band of quiet resignation without much variance. As such, when he has his breakdown scene, it’s not entirely believable. Some actors can cry and make you believe it, others can’t.

It's hard to watch Somewhere without thinking about Lost In Translation. Both are about famous men who spend time with a girl/woman, finding a new sense of priority and renewed source of strength. While Bill Murray was able to take the material and craft a finely-tuned portrait of middle-aged loneliness, Stephen Dorff doesn't seem to bring anything distinctive to what he's been given. I think that, in large part, it's not entirely his fault. Coppola should have given the script another pass (or two or three), and attempted to inject some kind of life into this dull, dull story of inconsequential goings-on.

After waiting several years for the follow-up to Marie Antoinette, I’ve missed Sofia Coppola.

After Somewhere, I still do.

2 stars (out of 5)


Megan said...

I've never been a huge Sofia fan, but I was intrigued by Somewhere. However, the more trailers I saw the more I started to get the vibe you were talking about - that perhaps there was not a whole lot of plot behind it. I'm sad to hear that's true.

I ask myself a lot as I work why I feel the story needs to be told. I always have some kind of answer, and the strong the answer the more I know I like what I'm working on. :)

Adam said...

It's disappointing, because SC's proved that she can spin something meaningful off of a bare-bones premise. It's not like this is uncharted territory for her.

It's been interesting to read some of the film's positive reviews. A.O. Scott seems to have seen the same film I did, but interpreted it very differently. He makes an Antonioni comparison, which, while understandable, isn't one that I really ascribe to. His films were often (well, almost always) deliberately paced, but I think Antonioni managed more often than not to achieve a sense of pathos that left the viewer with an emotional foothold into the material even if they didn't enjoy much of the experience of watching the film.

Kelly4nia said...

I totally agree. I saw this at the historic Red Vic in the Haight district of SF and you would have thought that it would lend to the indie feeling of the film. No. Add to that my love for her rekindled with Lost in Translation after a ten year hate sparked by her unwitting role in Godfather Three. She has since been forgiven but I don't know. I loved and bored at this film simultaneously. The ending left me extremely confused, elated and wanting.

Ellis said...

Wow. Truly the most pointless movie I've ever seen. No one changed. Nothing happened after the first five minutes of the film. It shouldn't take 1:38 to show you how bored and boring someone is. How did he become famous? Uh dunno. Who cares about him? Uh dunno. There is some silliness in the press and trailers to show that his daughter is helping him re-evaluate his life. Huh? She has nothing to do with anything. What is the Las Vegas scene? They drive to LV so he can throw some dice, then fly a helicopter to some camp somewhere? How about fly from LA? Huh? WTF? I guess this mostly shows that Sophia's father has clout with the movie press -- to promote it, to pretend it has deep inner meaning, to pretend his daughter as an interesting person. Nah -- totally useless.

Adam said...

@Ellis: "Nothing happened after the first five minutes of the film."

I'm not convinced that anything even happened THEN. I think that a decent film could have been made from Somewhere's source material, but the screenplay's a few drafts (at the least) away from being close.

fastfilmreviews said...

Valid points all and yet I still liked it. The pacing is indulgent, yes. Sofia’s narrative definitely takes some patience, but I was able to cozy up to its rhythms. Her take on celebrity culture seemed authentic and the deliberate pace really emphasized her protagonist’s disenchantment with his own life. We often hear stars complain about how their lives aren’t as glamorous as we think. I often roll my eyes and say, well then let’s trade places then. This was one of the few films that clearly presented why a movie star might feel boredom with life. I also thought Elle Fanning was incredible. Her subtle and very mature performance was a highlight for me. Great review Adam. Loved the fingernails comment. Ha ha.