Friday, January 14, 2011

Going SOMEWHERE ...? A Review of Sophia Coppola's Latest.


- To what extent can you enjoy a movie about an unlikable protagonist? To me, it all boils down to the point of view of the movie being told. Sometimes, I'll watch a movie like Funny People, and something about the voice of the movie just rubs me the wrong way. In that film, it was like there was a disconnect between the writing and direction and the audience - the movie seemed to want me to like its characters, to root for them, to sympathize with them. And yet, I mostly hated them and saw little redeeming value in them. Funny People felt like a movie made by someone who forgot what actually makes a person likeable. Adam Sandler's character is such a douche, even during moments when we're supposed to have empathy with him - that to me is just took me out of the film. Funny People is on one end of the scale, Greenberg is somewhere in the middle. In Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays a whiny, jobless slacker who nonetheless feels utterly justified in all of his constant criticisms of society. It's hard to really like the guy, but I thought the movie worked better than Funny People - for a number of reasons - but one was that it felt just a little bit removed from its character. Greenberg felt like a critique of its title character, whereas Funny People had an oddly inflappable sort of admiration for its characters. Still, Greenberg, to me, never had enough of a point to it to make enduring Stiller's character 100% worthwhile. It felt like the movie was just presenting us with this guy, but wasn't quite sure what it wanted to say about him. And that brings us to SOMEWHERE, which to me falls in this same sort of genre. It's a movie about a privelaged guy - an actor - a Hollywood star. And it's a movie made by a notoriously priveleged director - Sofia Coppola. So this could have been a really obnoxious movie if not handled the right way. But I give Coppola credit - she's made a movie about a world she clearly knows well, but she does so with a critical, even scathing eye. To that end, Somewhere is a worthwhile, interesting movie - a thematic and spiritual companion to Coppola's breakthrough work Lost In Translation.

Somewhere follows established Hollywood actor Johnny Marco as he goes about the business of being a rich, single, bored guy in LA. The film tracks the emotional arc of Marco as he evaluates his life and begins to form a deeper bond with his young daughter, Cleo. But it takes a while for Marco to grow. When we meet him, he has taken up semi-permanent residence at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel, a hangout for movie stars that basically caters to their every debauched desire. A quick call to the front desk can get you anything you want. Otherwise, with all of the partying and mingling that goes on, it's basically a luxury version of a college dorm. This is where Marco lives, but he's not some 24 year old up-and-comer. He's probably 40-ish. He's divorced. He has an eleven year old daughter. He should be living in a house and doing normal things. Instead, he hires strippers to come up to his room and pole-dance.

It's a pretty bleak picture that Sophia Coppola paints here, but she does so with an unglamorized, slightly satirical bent. When the aforementioned strippers dance for Marco, Coppolla lets the camera linger so long that the scene loses almost all of its sex-appeal, slowly spiralling into something that's just sort of sad, even a bit funny as you start to realize the underlying absurdity of the whole scenario. Coppola infuses the whole movie with that type of slow-burn, contemplative atmosophere - again, not unlike Lost In Translation. But I think it does work here because there is a definite journey that we're following. We're seeing Marco start to wake up to what we as an audience see basically from moment one - that his life, while semi-glamourous one one level, is also pretty much a pathetic waste.

The movie also features a really strong performance from Stephen Dorff. I don't know to what extent Dorff has lived out the life of Johnny Marco, but I imagine that he had some personal experience to draw upon for this role. Either way, he really does a nice job, and gives Marco just enough world-weary likability that you can root for him despite some of the fairly awful things that he does. Dorff is playing something of an asshole in Marco, but he does a nice job of making that emotional transition from being oblivious to being self-aware. Elle Fanning is also a really solid presence in the film as Marco's young (but eerily mature) daughter. Talent clearly runs deep in the Fanning family DNA, as Elle's performance is naturalistic and effective. Her character - a basically normal girl caught up in a world that is decidly not normal - is key in that she helps to put everything else in the film into clearer perspective.

There are a lot of nice, quiet moments in Somewhere, and the whole movie looks great - capturing LA in a way that gives the glamour of Hollywood a fuzzy, dulled edge. Everything feels lived-in and real. Now, where the film stumbles a bit is in balancing its quiet slice-of-life vibe with the larger points it's trying to make. Sometimes, the movie goes from subtle to unsubtle very quickly, and it can take you out of the film a bit. The movie's opening and closing scenes are emblematic of this problem -- instead of bookending the movie with the same tone that she goes for elsewhere, Coppola has some rather heavy-handed visual metaphors illustrate the movie's theme. The ending in particular is a little jarring, I think. It also, perhaps, comes too late in the film. There is a decent amount of meandering before we get to the endgame, and there were several points in the last three quarters of the film where I was sure the movie was over, but it kept going. I think what I found to be slightly frustrating was that the movie's ending is sort of melodramatic, in a weird way, but there is a disconnect there in that it feels like a semi-lacking substitute for a real third act that melds seamlessly with the rest of the film. My point is - the last part of Johnny Marco's character arc feels rushed / tacked on.

Somewhere is nonetheless a pretty compelling look at the bleaker side of fame and fortune. It sounds obnoxious on paper, and in some ways, sure, it is. But I do think that Coppola conveys a more universal message in the story of Johnny Marco that rings true. We all get caught in ruts. We all get immersed in these worlds of our own making that trap us, that keep us from forming meaningful connections or from achieving true self-advancement. Sure, some of us get to waste away in the Chateau Marmont, whereas most of us don't have that luxury (though after seeing Somewhere, I think I can safely say that I have no desire to ever hang out at the place). But there is definitely a poignancy at the heart of Somewhere that makes this more than just a narrowly-focused, self indulgent sort of movie. It's something that's worth checking out, and another strong statement from Coppola that she is a filmmaker with a unique and distinct voice.

My Grade: B+

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