‘Somewhere’ is obscure

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, January 7, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

With talented filmmakers, you can tell a lot about their movies from the very first shot that comes on screen. Because Sofia Coppola, the maker of “Lost in Translation,” is clearly a talent, and someone who thinks carefully about how things look in her movies, it might be worth a moment

to analyze the first shot of her new film, “Somewhere.”

The camera is stationary, gazing at one section of an oval-shaped driving track in the desert. With regularity, a very expensive car vrooms into view as it circles the track, although it spends most of its time off screen.

After the first couple of vrooms, we might begin to get the idea that Coppola is working a metaphor: The man inside the car has a life that’s going around in circles, going nowhere. But the shot goes on and on, long past the point where we get the idea.

Either you’ll think, “Hey, this is interesting, I’m being forced to re-adjust my timeclock and my expectations about how this movie might unfold,” or, “All right, I get the point — cut, already!” Said reaction will likely tell you how you’ll respond to the rest of this movie.

In its approach, “Somewhere” is unconventional, almost experimental, and let’s give Coppola credit for trying something different. Her story is stock: A dissolute movie star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, late of “Public Enemies”), idles away his life in booze and casual sexual partners. His indulgent existence at the notorious Chateau Marmont hotel is interrupted when he has to take care of his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) for a few days.

Maybe it’s the simplicity of this set-up (we can be pretty sure that Johnny will re-assess his fondness for drugs and strippers because of the humanizing effects of being a parent) that leads Coppola to her style, which forgoes the usual A-B-Cs of telling a story in favor of long-take shots of people doing very little.

By the time Johnny totes his daughter to a film festival in Italy, the destination is almost superfluous. Coppola’s already been making a European film, in the style of many festival movies, which emphasize observation over plot.

There are scenes in this movie where that approach pays off, where we might indeed begin to think about something in a new way because we’re being forced to look at it for a long time.

But more often, the conclusions here are so obvious they feel belabored. Dorff is more model than actor here, posing against a variety of backdrops, and most of the situations he finds himself in are simply not all that interesting, unless you have an appetite for tacky Hollywood glamour.

Despite its limitations, “Somewhere” remains watchable for one main reason: Coppola’s dogged acceptance of her flawed characters. Johnny isn’t a jerk or a monster, but a gentle, undisciplined lost soul. The thing is, he could really use a more compelling movie.

“Somewhere”

Sofia Coppola directs this observational study of a dissolute actor (Stephen Dorff) wasting some days with his daughter (Elle Fanning). Nearly an experimental movie, the film veers between the obscure and the painfully obvious, with very mixed results.

Rated: R, for nudity, language, subject matter

Showing: Harvard Exit

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