Thursday, January 20, 2011

Squalor: Somewhere

I'm in a bad place with Sofia Coppola's spectacularly tedious, is-it-poetry-or-is-it-navel-gazing Somewhere.  I just don't know what to do.  I'm a Coppola fan, no doubt, I've spent too much time rallying to get folks to appreciate the elaborate tableaux of Marie Antoinette and jumped fully onto the Lost in Translation bandwagon...but Somewhere?  Honestly, while I was watching it I actually brought out my little notebook (yes, in the theater) and began making a list of all the things I needed to get finished later in the day.  Which is to say: Somewhere? I guess I'd rather have been elsewhere.  Bad joke, but you get the picture.  Regardless, I can see its positive bits of the film as well.  You know:  the unflinching devotion to creating a study in populated loneliness.  The commitment to making the protagonist's tedium our tedium.  The photography.  All that jazz.  We know Sofia Coppola makes movies about lonely people.  We know she makes movies specifically about lonely wealthy people who are otherwise surrounded by other people.  Lonely queens, lonely actors in foreign countries, lonely young wives in foreign countries, lonely teenage girls in a house full of drama; this is Coppola's niche.  She has a knack for capturing the beauty that arises out of the artfully mundane; the excesses and self-indulgences of a person left with too many means and too much time to assimilate the little details.  Somewhere does that again.

This time, Coppola is treading back over familiar turf.  She's showing (for it certainly isn't telling) the story of a big time actor named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff).  Marco is simply plagued with ennui.  His days are a rinse and repeat cycle of activities Coppola manages to make shockingly dull.  Plaster face casts from special effects artists, visits from twin pole dancers, up and down the Los Angeles highways in his Ferrari, casual sex with lady after lady, visits from his much too sweet daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning): these are the pieces that make up Johnny's life.  There's no vigour, though.  He's lost interest, it seems, and Coppola doesn't dress her character's exasperation with fancy camera angles or lively music.  Johnny beds a lady, it's boring. Johnny watches the pole dancers, they're really boring.  Johnny gets a plaster mold made of his face and we literally watch it dry.   
In a way, this is good.  It's interesting in its total disinterest, and the telling feels almost like a secret.  It's sort of personal, sort of bold, a little voyeuristic.  What it might be the most, however, is completely indulgent.  In many ways, Somewhere feels like a total rehashing of Lost in Translation without any of the elements, any of the dynamics that made that film resonate.  The beauty of Lost was derived from the exotic, the culture shocked framing that forces a bond between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.  Somewhere replaces Tokyo with Hollywood, a May/December quasi-romance with a poorly defined father/daughter relationship, and the strange charisma of Bill Murray with, well, Stephen Dorff.  There are scenes populating Somewhere that feel like direct rips from Lost in Translation.  Yet, here, they are misplaced.  The film is almost like watching a homage by an influenced director, someone who admired the original, but didn't quite understand the mechanism that made that first go work. That it's actually a later work from the same director is completely bizarre.  In Somewhere, there's no spark.  Johnny receives nasty text messages from a blocked number, but there's no intrigue there.  When his daughter comes to stay with him, you may think that something dramatic might happen, but apart from some very nice moments of bonding, you'd be wrong.  They play Guitar Hero, she makes eggs benedict (with a perfect hollandaise sauce), she's supposed to be eleven, but I've never seen an eleven year old who acts as accepting and mature as her.  All of this, of course, seems designed to prove something, to show us the pains of being a celebrity.  How unglamorous a life in front of the camera really is.  It's a meditation, maybe, but it's the kind barked about by someone so self-righteous about its practice that it comes across as painfully self-serving, wallowing tripe.
As I watched it, I was engaged in a battle between my senses.  The most pretentious part of me was finding it art, but just barely.  The rest of my consciousness seemed resigned to regard the film as complete non-entity.  I decided, at several points of the film that Coppola had failed miserably, that it was an insufferable extended character sketch with no tension trying to build up to an existential nothing.  Its conclusion was a juvenile bit of non-dramatic drama, the sort of thing a worldy adolescent who thinks they don't have a friend on Earth might end a story with when they're holed up in their room on a Saturday night.  Cause, you know, it's so hard to have everything when what you want is something else... end scene.

 Somewhere's biggest problem, essentially, is that its point is pointless.  The film's whole thesis, the entire poetry of it just feels like the exploitation of a cliche.  It's not as beautiful as Coppola's other works on any level (including visually).  It's also, I'm sorry to say, not as wry.  Somewhere possesses almost none of the humor or emotion of the director's other work.  The characters, though we're voyeuristically treated to every bit of minutiae within their small lives, are flimsy paper dolls.  Their personalities aren't present.  We spend more time waiting for them to come to life then they actually spend alive, and when they get that spark, their lives just aren't really worth watching.  In the end, even I can't bring myself to banter about its merits.  I'll let the self-absorbed film student class of 2012 do the gushing...



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