Minimalism gets the maximum treatment in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” a movie so muted that it barely exists at all. That’s mostly good news: Arriving four years after the poor reception of “Marie Antoinette” as a misconceived hipster period piece, the writer-director returns to the gentler sort of character study that made “Lost in Translation” such a beloved hit. But “Somewhere” takes that soft approach and makes it even softer — resulting in a competent, if not exemplary, observational portrait.
Stephen Dorff stars as Johnny Marco, the sort of jaded actor whose endless jet-setter routine has left him with a fixed sleepwalking gaze. His life and career blend together, and Coppola shows us everything but his performances. Marco travels from Los Angeles to Italy, kills time at the overly luxurious Chateau Marmont and grins on cue when the press calls for it. A large portion of the movie finds Coppola’s camera patiently observing her protagonist as he sits, wordlessly, staring off into the distance. This is dangerously close to faux art house territory, where the lack of events supplant any stabs at real depth, but Coppola keeps the duration of scenes —and the movie itself— relatively short, so the experience rarely starts to wear.
More importantly, the slight narrative does serve a purpose: Marco’s job has consumed his life to the point where he has none. Only the sudden introduction of his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), the product of a failed marriage, suggests his possible salvation. When spending time with her, Marco looks as though his latent humanity suddenly woke up. During a handful of visits, including a business trip to Italy for which Cleo tags along, Marco’s dazed expression begins to recede (which only further enhances his isolation when Cleo returns to her mother). A noticeable warmth dominates their shared scenes, generating enough legitimate chemistry to makes this theoretically one-note scenario glide along with engaging momentum.
Dorff’s restrained performance sustains the movie through the less effective moments of dead air, but his character matches Coppola’s direction when she highlights the absurdity encompassing his overly pampered existence. An early scene involving pole dancers in Marco’s bedroom emphasizes the awkwardness of their movement, neatly encompassing the disconnect between power and comfort that defines his life. (The loud, unnerving squeak of their legs as they gradually slide downward efficiently drains the eroticism of the moment.)
As Marco proceeds through his life, “Somewhere” develops a vignette-like structure to mirror his subjectivity. Some scenes hold more interest than others: A prolonged bit where he lies completely still and breathes through a face mask contains absurd comic inspiration, whereas other scenes lack that spark of insight. Fortunately, Harris Savides’s vibrant cinematography makes Marco’s world come to life even when he doesn’t.
The father-daughter dynamic in “Somewhere” is the kind of thing that readily opens up to an autobiographical reading, as proven by most of the press coverage for the movie (and all of Coppola’s previous movies) that fixate on her famous family background. Beyond that intriguing dimension, Coppola’s fourth outing behind the camera displays her ability to reconstitute familiar genres for her own non-commercial agenda. Marco’s familial conundrum involves an airtight premise found in countless family comedies, but it has been repackaged here as a pity party.
That quality makes it an easy target. “Somewhere” was met with controversy when Coppola won the Golden Lion at Venice earlier this year, partly because of its mixed reviews but mainly because jury head Quentin Tarantino once dated the director. Forget it: The movie sports exactly the kind of fancily packaged understatement that ends to get a free ride in the hyper-literary terrain of the festival circuit, although that hardly makes it artificial.
Compared to “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s latest work simply qualifies as a doodle, but it’s carefully executed nonetheless — and weighted with themes that fit its extreme quietude. When Marco finally breaks down and sobs, the self-deprecation tumbling out of him (“I’m fucking nothing”), the scene has a paradoxical double-meaning: The actor no longer wants to act, and yet Dorff scores his big acting moment. It could go wrong in many ways, but he more or less pulls it off. And so does “Somewhere.”
criticWIRE grade: B+