Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out before what sorts of movies Academy members are doing nothing. This week they’re almost as unmoved as the Ferrari-driving main character in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere.
Hey, Henry, it’s our second consecutive week of watching wealthy and depressed white folks wallow in tastefully art-directed self-pity! What a dramatic turnaround from last year’s difference–obsessed and poverty–preoccupied Oscar season. But whereas Rabbit Hole mobilized a gratingly aestheticized account of WASP-y grief, at least Sofia Coppola’s vision of movie star malaise in Somewhere must benefit from the added texture of her own experiences of glamorous exclusion, right?
As with the grieving suburbanites in Rabbit Hole, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), the main character in Somewhere, is fundamentally alienating from the outset. His apparently insurmountable apathy towards his unhappiness makes us less interested in a possible redemption narrative, not more. Inexpressive, perpetually medicated and fantastically uncharismatic (especially for a movie star), how or why we’re expected to care that he’s simply a well-branded shell of a human being (nearly his exact words in the only scene where Dorff has to act, a telephonic breakdown to his baby-mama) is unclear. Because he lives in L.A.’s equivalent of the Hotel Chelsea, Chateau Marmont, where there are fashion shoots and other famous actors (spoiler: Benicio Del Toro in an elevator cameo) around all the time? Because he’s got a bitchin’ Ferrari that he drives all over town and, in the opening shot (the film’s best and most eloquent), round-and-round on a desolate desert race track? Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, seems interested in the innumerable little ways that fame, or simply being cordoned off as “special,” builds up a person’s facade all the while emptying them out inside, but she explores that idea more fully, intelligently and enjoyably in her two previous films.
On the other hand, Somewhere is a nearly Jarmusch-ian formal exercise in obfuscation. Nowhere might have been a better title, since for all the traveling Johnny and his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) do—to Italy for promotion on a new film (a reference to Nine?), to Vegas and the Grand Canyon en route to her summer camp—that’s where this film wants desperately to go. The only thing that makes its non-journey more emotionally engaging than a Ryan McGinley photo diary—which isn’t a complaint; Somewhere definitely nails the hipster photographer’s “beautiful young people looking listless in bohemian settings” aesthetic—is this barely-there, neither completely friendly nor exactly parental relationship. Johnny’s identity crisis and emotional maybe-reawakening come after an unusually long visit from his little girl, whose mother has suddenly left town indefinitely.
When Cleo arrives on the scene, like a proxy-audience member trapped in Johnny’s anesthetized world for scenes and shots that have ellipsis-less, Antonioni-esque durations and drawn-out rhythms, she casts the whole between-shoots Hollywood aesthetic in an absurd light. (Johnny, aside from monosyllabic press conferences, publicity appearances and somnambular sexual encounters, doesn’t do any “movie star stuff.”) Should we be reading some autobiography into this relationship, with Coppola as Cleo, the precocious kid set adrift in daddy’s strange, fairy-tale-fake film world? Can’t we just excuse this as a young director’s movie-about-the-movies pet project, a necessary glance inward before returning to the more expansive and complex work that she does so well? Can’t we, please, Henry?!
Sure, Ben, whatever you’d like. I’ve never been much of a Little Sofia fan, and always saw her as more of an inward-glancer than a director with an expansive eye. But whatever; I was actually a bit surprised that I kinda, sorta enjoyed Somewhere, mostly for what you call its Jarmusch-ian pace. I think it’s 15 minutes before we hear any meaningful dialogue; before that, a car speeds laps, blondes pole-dance, patrons gawk, and many cigarettes are smoked. But no one says anything more important than “here’s your check, sir”. I admire the movie’s patience, and I doubt any movie shot by Harris Savides could be anything less than fucking beautiful. What’s so disappointing about Somewhere is that its beauty is to no end. I don’t think I’ve ever taken fewer notes during a movie; near the end, I just started writing down anything, like basic plot synopses, just so I’d be sure to have something to talk to you about. Is there anything more to this movie than its portrait of The Drudgery of Stardom? Gosh, Ben—is it true that movie stars don’t have it all?
Making this vacuity worse—which we could, I guess, otherwise excuse as mimesis; it’s a vapid film about vapidity?—is that Ms. Coppola lays on her symbolism with such a heavy hand. Ben, did you get that his life is as empty and repetitive as that perpetually lapping sports car in the opening shot? Ben, did you get that his broken arm was an outward manifestation of an inner defect? Ben, did you understand that he was a man who wished to remain as undisturbed as his hotel room? And that, given the chance, he probably would have worn a t-shirt that declared as much, instead of his otherwise ridiculous t-shirt choices? Like, Black Flag? Hahahahaha!
That was a fine, self-conscious joke in a movie that’s very self-conscious. It’s self-consciously biographical, as you mention; self-consciously Hollywood, with its Benicio in an elevator, the guy from Jackass as the best friend, and that scene evincing the magic of movie make-up; self-consciously about Los Angeles, with an ominously menacing mood—harassing texts from an anonymous number, being shadowed by a black SUV—that cleverly never amounts to actual menace. (Maybe it’s just me that associates L.A., in the movies anyway, with crime and dread?) And, like the story has obvious parallels to Little Sofia’s own life, there seem to be parallels between Stephen Dorff and his character, especially in that they’re both thought of more as “stars” than “actors.” (An impression this movie hopes to break, I’m sure!) I think my favorite moment in the movie is when an up-and-coming actor asks Johnny if he uses The Method, and Johnny looks at him like he’s never heard the term.
As such, I’d say we kinda misstepped here, Ben. Is this really Oscarbait? Dorff is solid, but the performance is really, really subdued, and definitely not the kind of scenery chewer that Academy voters go gaga for. (I guess Elle Fanning could get one of those supporting nominations that occasionally go to children, because she cries really well in that scene where she cries.) Somewhere is less prestige pic than arthouse indie; it has no social conscience, replacing it instead with an aggressive apathy that borders on nihilism. Its idea of zeitgeist is no deeper than Guitar Hero. Those fogies with bad taste out in Hollywood aren’t really going to cast their ballots in its favor, now are they, Ben?
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Director (Sofia Coppola), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Elle Fanning), Best Cinematography (Harris Savides).