The setup is worthy of a high-concept Hollywood comedy: a dissolute, disconnected, obscenely wealthy movie star is adrift in a world without notable human contact, an endless whirlwind of premieres, junkets, parties, and meaningless sex. Until one day… his spunky eleven-year-old daughter comes to stay with him and sets his heart aglow with the joys of family and remind him of the importance of being grounded and of engaging with his fellow humans and yada yada.
One of the peculiar things about watching Somewhere is that, even knowing it’s a Sofia Coppola movie, and knowing that Coppola would never do anything so gauche as to plot her film according to the conventional story beats and moral trajectory of a bog-standard Hollywood flick, we keep expecting that movie to emerge – more subtly, perhaps, than Tinseltown hacks would manage to do it, but still starting and ending at the expected places. In a way, Somewhere does just that: Stephen Dorff, the movie star, does indeed begin adrift and lacking in human contact, and by the end he moves out of his berth in the Chateau Marmont and presumably takes steps toward a more grounded existence; and the time spent with his daughter (Elle Fanning) seems to have been the catalyst in this sea-change. But Coppola doesn’t seem particularly interested in charting the path between point A and point B. So determined is she to avoid anything resembling a plot, or to chain her scenes together in a cause-and-effect sequence, that the desire to be Unhollywood appears to be the guiding principle of her aesthetic.
For instance, in a typical screenwriter’s take on this story, you’d start the movie with Dorff being reluctant to take on the responsibility of spending time with Fanning, perhaps annoyed by her presence and the way she cramps his style. You’d probably have Fanning, in retaliation, acting out in bratty and annoying ways, testing the limits of her father’s patience and subconsciously punishing him for having neglected her up to this point. In Somewhere, by contrast, no such thing happens. Dorff and Fanning get along swimmingly from the beginning. They drive around together, he admires her ice skating, they play Guitar Hero, and so on. They never seem anything other than pleased to be in one another’s company. One can sense the Unhollywood in all of this – Coppola has no interest in creating tension or in establishing crafted lines of conflict between her characters. No doubt she might say, “why can’t a movie star and his daughter just have a fun time hanging out together?”
A few moments in Act III do introduce some dissonance. Fanning reveals her insecurities, and Dorff has a confessional moment in which he realizes how empty his life is. But here’s where the cognitive dissonance sets in. How empty can his life be if he’s got this wonderful, well-adjusted daughter, who loves to be with him, and on whom his unlimited budget allows him to lavish the most luxurious and mind-expanding lifestyle and education? Even if you set at a pin’s fee the value of Dorff’s unlimited access to sex with many anonymous (and gorgeous) partners in a consequence-free environment, he seems to be doing A-OK as long as his daughter is around him.
Of course anyone can figure out the concept that, when obstacles are removed from one’s life, when one can have anything one wants, it deadens the soul. But this is a concept that seems not so much to grow out of Somewhere’s narrative, as to be imposed upon it by an audience casting about for analogies with other movies they’ve seen. The early scenes of mindless hotel decadence do establish this theme, but for the bulk of Act II, as Dorff and Fanning gallivant about Italy having a grand old time, it’s difficult to feel anything but envy for either of these characters. And sometimes Coppola seems to be doing nothing more than exulting in how nice it is to be rich and famous and waited on hand and foot in exquisitely furnished surroundings.
Which in the end makes Somewhere feel more like an old-fashioned White Telephone Movie than a penetrating examination of the soul-suppressing consequences of fame. Such movies, during the Depression when they flourished, had more dancing, though, and a light effervescent quality that offset the audience’s envy of the silvery rich people onscreen. I can’t help wondering what Somewhere would look like with Fred Astaire in the Dorff role and Shirley Temple standing in for Fanning.
There’s plenty to admire in Somewhere. Dorff’s performance is gently understated, and there’s a marvelous expression on his face when he observes two pole-dancers performing a private routine for him in his hotel room. They are trying their darnedest to be sexy, but his smile is completely devoid of libido, more like the indulgent grin a man might show when a little girl is showing off her tap-dancing. Visually, Coppola is developing a lean, spare style in which there are no wasted shots, and she’s aided by the yeoman work of cinematographer Harris Savides, who captures moments of sumptuous beauty, laden with vibrant yet muted colors. At times, Somewhere looks so good you might want to buy the Blu-ray and put it on in the background while you putter around the apartment, as a sort of living wall-painting.
But the film finally evokes no powerful response, and doesn’t seem to have earned whatever dramatic conclusions it’s trying to derive about its characters. It’s all well and good that Coppola is above the fray of conventional Hollywood storytelling, but now that she’s established what she’s moving away from, I’d like to figure out what she’s moving towards.