Sunday, January 2, 2011
Still sucking up to the Italians, Sofia Coppola continues to explore the old bourgeois ennui picture—an increasingly pessimistic cycle from Europa ’51 to La dolce vita to La notte and beyond—in Somewhere, another film about existential angst where the cause, contra the Italians, is not the soul-crushing effects of modernism but celebrity itself. The bourgeoisie are discontented because they are bourgeoisie, hence the self-destructive dive into the abyss that cheerily marks a Sofia Coppola hero. We may have seen Somewhere before, but time hasn't dulled its impact.
The coup is that Somewhere captures this mood of vague dissatisfaction without succumbing to boredom itself. Coppola’s long takes invite meditation, and her delicately deployed comedy humors us while alienating the uncomfortable protagonist. Much of the film sees Hollywood star Johnny Marco doing something silently, alone, but Coppola creates a collage of the many ways such a specter can be silently alone: stripteases, dinner for one, posing for photographs, pre- and post-tryst contemplation, and enough driving to make Solyaris jealous. At a fleet 90 minutes, it’s a pretty damned restrained portrait of malaise.
It also wisely sidesteps cliché. This is not the story suggested by marketing of an estranged daughter suddenly showing up and awakening her dazed dad with her adorably offbeat vivacity. Johnny and daughter Elle Fanning are genuinely warm from the start, and the girl doesn’t rub off on Dad so much as she indirectly ignites his introspective odyssey. As Johnny, Stephen Dorff is a vision of barely suppressed turmoil. How can anyone argue his breakdown is unearned? He’s clearly aware of his unhappiness from the start, driving in circles, wandering through a party, falling asleep during sex. The rebirth is the questionable part. Coppola sheds no light on how serious he is about changing or how exactly he plans to do so. His uplifting smile says it all.
So what is Coppola interested in? Expertly evoked ennui aside—and really, get a load of that title, casual, careless, lost, and yearning—Somewhere runs the risk of banality. The ending—a straight line that bookends the opening shot’s circles—is moving as metaphor but stupid as literal incident. The antimaterialist streak, complemented by Coppola’s narrative minimalism, is incidental. The central epiphany is only slightly more profound, and Greenberg and Scott Pilgrim have more fully illustrated the dangers of casual living this year. You wish Coppola had a new take, but with Somewhere, it’s like she remade a classic myth. It’s an old tale with old insights, but that hardly reduces the artistry.