REVIEW: Sofia Coppola Brings a Delicate Touch, and Sure-Handed Precision, to Somewhere

Movieline Score: 10

Some of those who have already written about Sofia Coppola's Somewhere have categorized it, in a kind of lazy shorthand, as a movie about the "emptiness of celebrity." But Somewhere is really a Western -- a Western without cactuses or rocks or horses, but one that, even so, takes place under a special kind of sunlight found only in L.A., in an environment that's wild and ruthless under its veneer of civilization. The character of the land means everything in Somewhere: Wide boulevards lined with palm trees make for an illusory endless frontier; giant billboards advertise nothing in particular -- they're big because they can be. This is a place where you can lose your way without even taking a wrong turn, and sure enough, the hero of this particular story is a man who has temporarily lost himself. Still, the city's beauty -- either sitting in plain sight under the sizzling noon sun or semi-hidden in the dusk -- is peculiar and specific and alluring. L.A. -- and the idea of Hollywood, if not the actual neighborhood -- is heartless and fabulous. It's a place to really be a man -- or not.

Coppola is often discussed, tacitly or explicitly, as a "girly" director. She refuses to punish Marie Antoinette for her crimes against the poor (which were a myth anyway) and instead grants the ill-fated queen a moment of posthumous delight in the form of a pair of pink Converse sneakers; she sympathizes strongly with a young woman who feels strange and lost in Japan, but also has the temerity to treat the language barrier as a joke. (Forget that in Lost in Translation, Coppola made it clear that the differences between Japanese and American culture produce frustration and confusion on both sides.) As filmmakers go, she's not a man's woman, like Kathryn Bigelow; she's treated as more of an exclamation mark dotted with a little heart.

But Coppola has the most delicate touch of any filmmaker currently working in America, which is not to say that her pictures are in any way soft: She's disciplined and precise in a way few young filmmakers are. (It makes more sense to compare her with someone like Hou Hsiao-hsien than to any of her Hollywood contemporaries.) And Somewhere is her finest movie yet, a picture so confident and assured -- and in the end, so unself-consciously wrenching -- that, despite its quiet subject matter and Coppola's deceptively low-key approach, it's thrilling to watch from moment to moment.

Stephen Dorff is Johnny Marco (a name that's less 2010 than it is 1962) an action-movie star who has holed himself up in the Chateau Marmont. This isn't a home away from home -- there's clearly no home for Johnny, in his wardrobe of scruffy rock and roll T-shirts and his even scruffier chin stubble, to be away from. It's the place where he passes his days and nights in a desultory blur: His days are broken up by significant events, like the arrival of bored-looking yet proficient pole-dancing twins (they come to his room to perform for him, their gym equipment ingeniously folded up into small duffel bags -- these are small-businesswomen on the go) or a snooze-interrupting call from his publicist to alert him that he's due at a press conference in, say, 10 minutes (he's showered and dressed in a flash, though his ablutions barely seem to make a difference).

Unceremoniously -- there's no ceremony in Somewhere, only random, unannounced, everyday minutes -- his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), shows up in his room. He's asleep when she arrives -- he awakens to find her putting her Jane Hancock on his cast. (Johnny has been injured doing a stunt -- "I do all my own stuntwork," he announces proudly at one point, as if anyone around him really cared.) Cleo has been dropped off by her mother, Johnny's foreboding ex (played by Lala Sloatman), who admonishes him not to get her home too late. It appears he's forgotten he was supposed to see her in the first place.

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  • Richard Crawford says:

    It's cheering that the best movie critic writing today completely gets the best movie of the year, "Somewhere".
    Thank you, Stephanie.
    Richard Crawford.

  • metroville says:

    As exhibited by The Virgin Suicides, Coppola is a filmmaker capable of expressing elegiac snapshots of relatable humanity.
    As exhibited by Lost In Translation, she's the privileged offspring of a talented filmmaker who mistakenly believes that the average person cares about the time Spike Jonze didn't pay her an acceptable amount of attention on an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan, leaving her only with bottles of Dom Pérignon and the inadvertent opportunity to hang with Harrison Ford for a while. (And mostly because Bill Murray happened to kick ass in the Harrison Ford role, her narrow-minded view was validated.)
    A '10' for this one, Stephanie? A '9.5' and I wouldn't even have bothered to comment (especially considering that I was on your side while the crazy people attacked you for your unfavorable review of Inception--despite the fact that I happen to like that movie)... But if Somewhere truly is a perfect film in every way (including accessibility to the audience), I quit--and I will live out my days watching my DVD of Judgment Night on a continuous loop. (That's a Stephen Dorff movie that speaks to me.)

  • Phil Edwards says:

    Metroville, that seems off point. It might be fair to say that Coppola gets to make unique movies like these because of her rarified status, but her ability to make them is entirely earned and entirely her own. Nepotism alone can't make someone see the world as beautifully and truthfully as she does.

  • TimeLagged says:

    Okay with this review Stephanie is now forgiven for the glowing review of that hideous drek "The Tourist", which I'll just chalk up to our usual reader-reviewer mind meld going on vacation. To Europe. To make movies about other movies, throwing every overripe cliche from other movies into a pot and stirring, then serving up a horrible and tasteless stew made out of the worst parts of other spy movies, and not even the good parts. And getting a really bad haircut while there.
    But I digress.
    The idea of a Western hadn't even occurred to me when watching this wonderful movie, but as usual Stephanie has teased out something that was sort of there and just hadn't become conscious. It had me at the first scene, and the desolate, bright, disturbingly over-pleasant and empty landscape is very much a part of why. It's a landscape I know. That's why perhaps the idea of a Western wouldn't occur to me: growing up there, the entire world was a Western, at least in the sense that this review is using that word. It would be years before I discovered that there were places that weren't.
    Absolutely brilliant. Movie and review.

  • scout661 says:

    Such a great film. I had to see it twice :). I would give it a 200. By the way, what do you think happened in the ending. why did he leave his keys in the car? why did he leave his car? all these great questions 🙂

  • Sco says:

    "(Johnny has been injured doing a stunt — “I do all my own stuntwork,” he announces proudly at one point, as if anyone around him really cared.)"
    Um, I'm pretty sure that drunken fall down the stairs at a party at the beginning of the movie is how he broke his arm...not doing a stunt, though I do not doubt that Johnny is the kind of person who would boast about stuntwork.

  • munzz says:

    he didnt' injure himself doing a stunt. he fell off the stairs at a party.
    The fact that he said that instead to his wife and daughter is so telling about what kind of character he is and what he is going through..
    I'm quite surprised someone who is getting paid to professionally review a film can miss something like this.

  • KJames says:

    @Munzz. Seriously, you're surprised that Ms. Zacharek missed a short scene implying Marco's fall and broken arm . . . and instead went with Marco's explanation instead? Does it matter? No.