Aesthetic proves more urgent in Somewhere

Style over substance

Hyper-attentive to clothing, setting, music, and tone, Sofia Coppola’s films often feel like a very hip magazine spread come to life. She’s a phenomenal stylist. It’s her signature: that cool, clued-in, fashiony feel. But in her lesser works like Somewhere, adhering to that style proves more urgent to Coppola than the storytelling that has characterized high-water marks like The Virgin Suicides.

Like Lost in Translation, Somewhere centers around a wealthy, spoiled character who has no reason to mope, but does it unceasingly. Actor and babe-magnet Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is burned out and going through the motions: press junkets, special effects makeup, photo sessions. Even sex seems to bore him. With little depth behind the pretty face, he’s a hard character to warm to. In one of the film’s most arresting and strangely appealing scenes, one that is meant to register Johnny’s boredom and quest for novelty, he meets up with twins who travel with their own collapsible stripper poles and set up shop in his hotel room. They do a routine both naughty and nice, and their chipper posture and innocent blond faces make the raunchy act look almost conceptual, like performance art. It’s a Bret Easton Ellis vision of the City of Angels but without the griminess and soul-sickness. It’s also a typical Coppola moment, a sliver of the decadent splendor that she’s undoubtedly crossed paths with as the daughter of heralded director Francis Ford Coppola or as a sophisticated young woman with a collection of glamorous friends. Many have speculated that Somewhere is a partly real, partly fictionalized account of Coppola’s own childhood with her famous, and famously misbehaving, father.

Johnny’s jadedness gets a glass of ice water tossed on it with the arrival of his slightly tomboyish, angelic 11-year-old daughter Chloe (Elle Fanning), who’s dropped in Johnny’s lap when her mother leaves town. Her innocence and go-with-the-flow willingness to follow her dad along like a puppy puts Johnny’s debauchery into sharp relief. But she also offers a non-jaded perspective that could rescue her father from his downward spiral, if he cared enough to take it.

While Dorff seems to be playing a variation on his own bratty star persona, Fanning is absolutely luminous and butterfly-delicate in Somewhere, and she’s the real reason to take this journey. She’s another in a long line of golden girls in the Coppola canon. Fanning is more vivid and enticing than her male co-star, as is the wont of a female director who showers her attention on them.

If you can forgive its slightness, there is something to be said for what Coppola does right. She’s certainly chosen a compelling and meaningful location. The haute bohemian splendor of L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel is so vividly portrayed it becomes like a third character in the daughter-father dyad, a kind of shimmering mirage of a faux-home that keeps them from really connecting on a deeper level.

There’s no denying the seductiveness of the worlds Coppola creates. But like Johnny’s directionless ennui, it may not be enough to hang a film on.

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