Like the best fashion campaigns, Sofia Coppola’s film works very hard to sell its product while also just about convincing you that it might actually have some substance threaded in under the wispy, tissue-paper surface. Like the best works of art, it creates a world that very few of its viewers will ever come close to experiencing, but where they will nevertheless feel perfectly at home by its conclusion. There have, of course, been fashion footage and photography that appear reasonable simulacra of art, and would-be films that are like little more than expensive ad campaigns. Somewhere floats uneasily between these worlds, neither wholly honest storytelling nor wholly empty spectacle.
Should I say that Stephen Dorff is a revelation? Perhaps that’s too strong a word. But when an actor who has been lost for years in the wilderness of blink-and-you-missed-them roles is thrown a role like this (where the spacious gaps between lines of dialogue leave him reliant on his face and eyes) and crafts something winningly gentle and touching, notice deserves to be paid. Coppola shuffles him through a short set of claustrophobic locales—hotel rooms, his car, the occasional hallway—and watches as the man begins to come unglued.
Johnny Marco is a film star. All we really know is that he’s quite famous: people lining up three-deep outside a hotel just to get a glimpse of him in a limo famous. We don’t know much of anything about his movies, but we do know that he’s popular enough to be chased, and rich enough to be able to spend days on end in the Chateau Marmont, seemingly paying no attention to where his career might be going.
Lest we think that Johnny is enamored of these trappings, Coppola makes sure to layer him in the accoutrements of the celebrity slacker rebel. His dress is T-shirts and jeans, worn with such insouciant style that he’s runway-ready at all times. Even when forced to slouch into a suit, he looks every inch the matinee idol that one imagines Dorff might have become. Instead, Johnny goes through the motions of publicity on his latest blockbuster, and falls asleep to the strange visions of the exotic dancers he hires to twirl and contort at the foot of his bed. (Their glassy expressions and his utter lack of interest are somehow arresting, a single, welcome note of true strangeness in this fuzzy, muted world.)
His social life is limited but for one-night stands, which might explain the estranged wife, with whom he has an 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). Well put together and eager to please, she seems the one thing Johnny and the film care about. Coppola’s camera warms up to Cleo as she fussing about Johnny’s rooms, where in the Marmont or on a junket to Italy. She makes him elaborate meals and they play video games together, eating room-service ice cream late at night when they can’t get to sleep. The trip has the feel of an extended holiday, before Cleo must go off to camp or Johnny to some other film. Like Charlotte in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s surprisingly affecting paean to rich people’s trouble with jet lag, Cleo is a searching and clear-eyed heroine in a gauzy, transitional space. At least her search seems more convincing than Johnny’s short, sharp collapse one night, his numbness shattering into a torrent of self-hatred, likely forgotten by the time of the next morning’s prettiness.
There’s no getting around it, this is a pretty film. Harris Savides shoots with the hard-edged but sun-dappled beauty that he used for Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, another tale of disaffection in the upper echelons of Southern California society (though one certainly more aware of class issues). He and Coppola create scenes that are just barely too perfect for their own good: Johnny and Cleo sunning themselves by a hotel pool surrounded by verdant trees and shimmering water, Johnny viewing L.A. at a remove from his balcony. But Somewhere includes as well some unexpected moments, where the beauty snatches your breath away, as in one long take that is nothing more than Johnny gunning his car onto the highway, the camera behind and slightly above, taking in the buzzing traffic as it shifts and eddies like schools of fish.
We end at the beginning of something, which could be either devastating or transformative. Little has happened since the movie’s start, but action is not the point. An appreciative view would take the film as a beautiful rumination on ennui and collapse. A more critical approach would be that this is child-of-Hollywood self-indulgence at its worst. Would we care about these characters were they living behind a strip mall in Fresno and perennially short on the rent? Of course not. Meaning and art might creep in sometimes around the edges of Somewhere‘s designer-ready compositions and purringly hip soundtrack, but again, they’re not the point.