Let me get this bit out of the way at the start. I’m a great fan of Lost in Translation. Maybe it didn’t resonate with me on first viewing, feeling a little drawn-out and meandering at times; but, returning to it, my affection for it has only grown. A latter-year Bill Murray was on great form, and it was one of those early Scarlett Johannsson movies where she wasn’t painfully arrogant throughout, and actually knew how to be sweet. It was also director Sofia Coppola’s breakthrough movie. Sofia, the daughter of Apocalypse Now’s acclaimed director, Francis Ford Coppola, was originally drafted into the acting pool by her dad, replacing Winona Ryder at the last minute for a fairly big role in the third Godfather movie. It was a foolish move, and one that resulted in accusations of nepotism, because there’s no denying that she wasn’t cut out for such a big part. Sofia would later go on to admit that she never really wanted to go into acting – and soon proved that he true talents lay behind the camera, going on to direct the critically acclaimed The Virgin Suicides in 1999. She became the first female American director to win an Oscar, for Lost in Translation, and has just recently become the first female American director to win the Golden Lion (the top prize at the Venice Film Festival) for her latest movie, Somewhere. Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating it.
Johnny Marco has recently become a big Hollywood star, attending press conferences, having publicity shoots, and being hounded by fans. Still, despite driving around in a Ferrari, with regular visits from blonde twins who strip for him in his bedroom, rather than enjoying living the life of Riley, he’s actually quite lonely, checking in to a Hollywood celebrity retreat in order to get away from it all. But when his estranged wife dumps their daughter on his lap, he welcomes her addition to his tiny entourage, taking the wild-eyed 11-year old girl with him wherever he goes – even on a publicity trip to Milan – and, slowly, she starts to get under his skin and make him reassess his empty life.
Film critic Mark Kermode has famously – or notoriously – called Somewhere “unbelievably self-indulgent and boring”. Harsh? Well, you wait until you see it, and judge for yourself. Coppola has always been interested in celebrity ennui – whether it be in Lost in Translation, or in relation to royal celebrities in Marie Antoinette – but here she goes beyond just studying it, and instead attempts to includes us in the suffering of it. Some regard this as a clever ploy, designed to help us better understand the sheer tedium of even the most supposedly exciting pastimes – the movie famously opens with a prolonged shot of the central character driving around a track in his Ferrari ad infinitum; and the aforementioned twin strippers even put him to sleep, and nearly us too in the process, with their repetitive, painfully lacklustre routine coming across as the absolute antithesis of erotic – but the trouble is that the movie is cursed by a distinct lack of characters to either relate to, or sympathise with.
Sofia not only admitted to having stayed at exactly the same Hollywood retreat that’s depicted in the movie (no doubt having met plenty of characters like the fictional Johnny Marco); and also to having had some of the corresponding experiences herself to the daughter in the movie – following her celebrity father Francis around the world, to Awards ceremonies and on helicopter rides. You can certainly see the message that she is trying to get across, but Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco is eminently bland and not in the least bit engaging – and any pity you might feel for him is soon replaced by vehement resentment. Oh, you poor celebrity, don’t you know what to do with your millions? Does it tire you to play videogames all day, drink too much and have strippers on call to dance you to sleep? Such a tough life. That’s the general sentiment you feel: that the lead character is just a bit of an ingrate.
Performance-wise, it probably still should be regarded as one of Dorff’s better contributions. He’s best known for playing the bad guy from Blade, and an actor who has never really broken through into A-list stardom, but here he certainly does what is required to portray a man with plenty of money but no purpose. One might argue that a better lead actor could have turned this movie around, but I think the problem lies more in the subject-matter than the performance. Still, who knows? Bill Murray managed to work wonders in a comparable role for Lost in Translation, so some responsibility should be shouldered by Dorff. The one area that isn’t in dispute is his interaction with Elle Fanning, who plays his young daughter. They definitely come across as father-and-child and, in arguably the movie’s best scene, have an entire conversation across the breakfast table without speaking a word. Elle is Dakota’s younger sister, and you can see the similarities immediately, both in looks and in talent. She handles the role well, both motherly towards her frivolous father – who simply doesn’t appear to have ever grown up – and also in awe of his celebrity status, viewing the majority of events in the movie as little more than a fantastic adventure and, perhaps only as any 11 year-old would, failing to fully grasp the impact and significance of her involvement in her dad’s empty life.
Still, despite reasonably good performances, there’s not enough here to drive the movie, and certainly not enough to make up for the script’s stagnant shortcomings, or the director’s missteps in attempting to provide the ultimate voyage through the eyes of a bored celebrity. If you thought Lost in Translation was occasionally meandering (as I certainly did on first viewing) then Somewhere will simply destroy your soul. It’s like watching a rich celebrity watch paint dry in his gorgeous, thousand-dollar-a-night flat, as some kind of attempt at evoking sympathy. There are clearly inherent issues that Marco has – a little research details how he is apparently supposed to suffer from an inability to feel pleasure – but you’d be hard pushed to tell this just from watching the movie. Hell, it’s also pretty difficult to discern his character, supposedly newly famous, from a more established celebrity. These would be minor quibbles were it not for the fact that the lack of clarity over them makes it that much harder to understand the position of the lead character. And if you don’t know him, then you will never get why he is so perpetually bored by things which the average member of the public can only dream about.
No, Somewhere is – in my opinion – beyond explanation and thus, essentially, beyond salvation. It’s not one step too far for director Sofia Coppola, who appears to be obsessed by celebrity ennui, but more like five steps too far, and it massively alienates the audience as a result. Despite its Awards and critical acclaim; and in spite of a couple of brief scenes which really work, I can’t help siding with Kermode on this one – it’s basically a self-indulgent, boring movie, and no amount of rationalisation and dissection will reveal it to be anything more. I hope that Sofia tries her hand at something a little different next time, but fear we’ll probably get a movie charting the upcoming Royal wedding and showing the brutal sacrifices of marrying into the ridiculously rich and pampered Royal family. I can feel the sympathy welling up inside me right now. And pity. Pity that if Sofia doesn’t change the music soon, she’ll soon be known as little more than a one-track record. Disappointing.