In Somewhere, Sofia Coppola plays anthropologist to track an actor through his native habitat, the Sunset Strip’s Chateau Marmont. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is sliding downward from his peak, the kind of imperceptible fall that’s cushioned by booze, flattery and women. The nearly silent first half plays like Nanook of the North, only the ladies are wearing a lot less clothes. With the invasion of 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), usually a flickering presence in Johnny’s life, the flick gets louder, but not by much—Coppola might believe in redemption, but she’s no sucker for big speeches.
We meet Johnny Marco racing laps by himself in a sleek sports car. He’s going nowhere, but he looks great doing it. Later, two identically dressed exotic dancers do a routine on parallel stripper poles in his hotel room, proving that double the choreography halves the excitement—there’s no thrill when the girls are focused on the timing of “ass shake, ass shake, spin, spin, bend.” The punch line is that Johnny falls asleep, though most directors would let us first enjoy leering at the girls. Not Coppola. To her, decadence is dull and she asserts that with the conviction of an heiress. She’s more interested in the awkward clunk of the dancers’ heels as they pack up their bags and slink off (sound designer Richard Beggs masterfully deflates any unavoidable visual glamour).
Johnny is a passive character, a prop, in his own life. People tell him where to go and what to say, and when he can’t figure it out—say, at an Italian awards show where he’s ambushed by dancing showgirls—he just smiles and nods. He’s been made so impotent by handlers and maids and room service and a banquet of available women that he can’t even be bothered to bone. Scene after scene, he falls asleep while still half-dressed. In the animal kingdom, he’d be a panda: popular, photographed and useless.
It’s fair to call Coppola a boutique filmmaker interested only in the poor-me problems of the privileged. (I’d rather she direct what she knows than mimic the middle-class.) But though her world view is narrow, it’s also deep. She’s a keen and sensitive observer of her world, and in Somewhere, she seizes the details that make us understand and empathize with Johnny’s inertia. Two special effects mask makers slather him in plaster and leave the room, his best friend (Jackass’ Chris Pontius, well-cast) throws parties on his tab, the endless hours of Guitar Hero that pass for bonding with his daughter, the comfort with which she orders cooking ingredients from room service.
There are very few big moments in Somewhere but the melancholy sticks with you for days like a layer of SoCal smog. As the film ends, we leave Johnny back in his sports car but now speeding straight down the highway, destination unknown. And when even that’s not enough, he pulls over, gets out, and lets his feet hit the pavement.