It took watching Sofia Coppola’s worst movie to help me recognize that she’s one of my favorite working directors. Somewhere is a lot like Lost in Translation in the way it allows Coppola to indulge at length in her worst narrative tendencies, mainly her obsession with the ennui of the have-it-all elite. Also like Lost in Translation, Somewhere often overcomes that narrative hurdle in the pure pleasure of its value as a sensory experience, demonstrating the same intoxicating visual & tonal meticulousness that helps distinguish her more thematically rich works (Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides, and The Beguiled are my holy trinity). This is a deliberately simple, quiet work that scales back Coppola’s ambitions after the go-for-broke excess of Marie Antoinette, one that mirrors the listless emptiness of its the-price-of-fame protagonist. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a lazy act of pretension, but Coppola’s too tonally & visually skilled as an artist to let it sit that way. This may be the most underwhelming film in her catalog to date, but it’s also quietly sweet & charming in a way too few movies are, which is why she’s one of the best.
Stephen Dorff stars as a movie star far above Stephen Dorff’s pay grade. His Tom Cruise-level fame as an action star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, as he finds his life spent lazing about L.A.’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel to be an unfulfilling drag. Pushing the disheveled t-shirt & jeans look of a nothing-to-lose movie star to the point of appearing homeless, he still finds beautiful women throwing themselves at his feet while performing simple tasks like picking up the morning paper or taking a phone call on the balcony. The already blatant emptiness of his lazy, hotel room party lifestyle is further put into perspective by the unexpected arrival for his young daughter, played by Elle Fanning. The simple act of sharing time with her (even time wasted playing Guitar Hero or watching her figure skating lessons) changes him for the better, recontextualizing his lazing-about hedonism. Sofia Coppola is no stranger to depicting boredom & ennui; they’re among her favorite pet subjects. Somewhere (again, not unlike Lost in Translation) offers a glimpse at how these emotional experiences (or lack thereof) can mean more and transform into something sweetly beautiful when you share them with someone you care about. It’s not a grand, paradigm-shifting statement, but it is a rewarding, intimate one.
Since boredom & ennui aren’t exactly the most kinetic of cinematic topics, most of Somewhere’s strengths are in the power of individual moments & images. Coppola reportedly strung together the film’s narrative based on her own childhood spent exploring fringe, transient Hollywood spaces like Chateau Marmont (along with the real-life experiences of young Hollywood children she knows in the 2010s) and you can feel that authenticity in the specificity of her imagery & the film’s many intimate exchanges, often between strangers. Mimed underwater tea parties, Foo Fighters-scored strip teases, ungodly piles of gelato, the world’s laziest gesture of unenthused cunnilingus: many might argue that Somewhere doesn’t amount to much, but there’s no denying that meticulous care went into its visual craft & small moments of human interaction. Coppola posits the Marmont as a realm outside of space & time, one only made more bizarre by the mix of celebrities, fashion models, and sex works that drift through its halls. And since the film is very light on dialogue for long, quiet stretches, the way those images shape the story being told can be surprisingly, delicately deft. For instance, the way a slow zoom-in on a claustrophobic plaster cast session matches Dorff’s suffocating loneliness early in the film contrasts wonderfully with the long, revitalizing inhale of a slow zoom-out of him sunbathing poolside with his daughter late in the runtime. Whether that exact contrast was Coppola’s intent or not, she is at least smart enough to allow enough distance for her audience to be able to draw those kinds of connections among her potent, intimate images.
Somewhere might only rank among my least favorite Coppola’s because it’s light on the aspects of her work I personally adore the most. I find her quiet fixation on the emptiness of wealth & excess works best in harsh contrast with an eccentrically loud backdrop, which draws me more to works like Marie Antoinette & The Bling Ring. I also highly value her power as a voice with mainstream notoriety & wide distribution who makes immersively feminine works the likes of which we usually only see in no budget festival releases. As Stephen Dorff’s existential crisis commands most of the runtime (as Bill Murray does in Lost in Translation), I’m not able to see as much of that distinctive voice here as I am in works like The Beguiled & The Virgin Suicides. Still, there’s enough sweetness in the onscreen relationship between Dorff & Fanning (who has become one of my favorite young actors thanks to her turns in The Neon Demon & 20th Century Women) and enough contemplative beauty in the film’s vestiges of excess imagery that I find the experience worthwhile when considered as a whole. Sofia Coppola at her worst is still better than most slow-drift ennui directors at their best. If Somewhere is a low point in her catalog, she deserves credit for having one of the best active resumes around.