Last days in the air conditioned nightmare
Many who revile America’s cult of celebrity and the pampering of Hollywood stars will view with contempt this movie by Sofia Coppola. Her theme may seem narrow. But it’s one many are curious about, and more than we realize experience. Uselessness and loneliness are part of modern urban life at many levels. And this is a filmmaker, as even her enemies acknowledge, who knows whereof she speaks. Here, Coppola, herself a child of Hollywood celebrity, has made a song of anomie, a Somewhere that’s virtually nowhere even if its protagonist is Somebody. At the center of his air conditioned nightmare, living at the cool (as in hip) Beverly Hills celebrity hotel, the Chateau Marmont, is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, restrained and sympathetic), a young movie star between jobs. He parties and drinks a little too much, breaks his arm and pretends to his ex-wife that he did it doing his own stunts. He gets laid whenever he wants to, but he receives insulting text messages like “You’re such an asshole,” or “You think you’re hot s–t.” He drives around in his black Ferrari, around and around and around in the opening sequence, on a barren desert course. The engine is racing, but there’s no destination.
Finally Marge (Amanda Anka), the ex-wife, announces she’s going away for an indefinite period of time and leaves their 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, light as air) with him, till he takes her to a summer camp. Used to the amusements and longeurs of the privileged, a skillful ice skater and ballet dancer and swimmer with a quick smile, Cleo is a very poised girl, but she cries on the way to camp, because Johnny is never around and now her mother is gone and she doesn’t know if she’s coming back. Johnny’s cast is off, and, relieved of caring for Cleo, he heads out for an existential Nowhere.
Comparisons with the art of Antonioni may seem an exaggeration, though from the first car sequence with its disassociation of sound Antonioni is indeed evoked, and so is Fellini very much evoked by the random parties, the excited sycophants, the meaningless chatter, the glitzy Italian television event that makes no sense, and the helicopter waiting out of nowhere. If this is Antonioni or Fellini, they’ve been memorized, assimilated and forgotten and it’s unjust to call this movie derivative. Comparisons even with Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation are misplaced. Yes, there is the isolation in a hotel, the comedy of celebrity-handlers, and the father-daughter theme. But Somewhere is more real and physical, as far as Bill Murray is from Stephen Dorff. Dorff, seen often with shirt off, is buff and physical. Instead of Murray’s slack, ironic face, there is the light, bright voice of a people-pleaser and a face that is a little ravaged from smoking and partying too much but also sweet, pretty, and still innocent. (Maybe Sofia is a Tarantino, reviving Dorfff’s career and qualifying him for subtle roles as partly Lost in Translation revived Murray’s and ranked him among the most trend-setting of actors.)
There is a homage to Antoinioni that emerges in Somewhere’s different management of time. Johnny experiences a series of events or non-events, which he is not even prepared for. He has to take Cleo to Milan with him because she’s in his care and his movie is opening there. They are chauffeured to the five-star Hotel Principe di Savoia, to a luxurious suite with its own swimming pool, with murals that look like Pompeii. Cleo swims back and forth in it, but posh though it is, the pool is like a fish pond. None of this is determined by Johnny. His life is an exercise in passivity. It’s fine, it’s fun, but it’s unrewarding. I wished Johnny had a chance to talk to James Franco. He should enroll in three universities. He’d have fun between acting jobs! But of course that would make a different story, a manic, goofy one. Johnny is the most classic American movie star Somebody, the kind who’s a Nobody, out of Nowhere, with no resources.
Pauline Kael expressed impatience with “Sick Soul of Europe” movies and this is a Sick Soul of Hollywood one. But Sofia Coppola is neither “the authentic Little Focker” and “mirthless Hollywood hack” as Armond White brutally calls her, reviewing this movie, nor does this film possess quite the brilliance and perfection the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott attributes to it. The truth is, Coppola is a filmmaker of considerable originality and talent. Everything she does has class. But her work has the stunted quality of the exotic hothouse flowers she describes.
The achievement of Somewhere is that after a while it makes you feel genuinely uneasy. Her Johnny Marco — Dorff himself used in the film passively, made to sit for 40 minutes in a plaster face cast to age him fifty years, and made to lie in a Chateau Marmont bed smiling while bad blonde twin pole dancers perform for him to a boom box — is a man trapped in an airconditioned nightmare. But it doesn’t look cold and empty like Bill Murray’s Tokyo hotel. It’s a deceptively friendly, easy, sunny place with light and air where everybody calls him “Johnny.” That’s the nightmare of California. Being alone surrounded by people who call you “Johnny” and wish you a nice day, who make you realize that despite all the smiles and the stroking there’s no there there, either outside you or inside you. This is a companion piece for Gus Van Sant’s Last Days.
Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere won the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. It opened in the UK Dec. 10 and began a limited US theatrical release Dec. 22, 2010.
DIRECTOR: SOFIA COPPOLA
WRITER: SOFIA COPPOLA
CAST: STEPHEN DORFF, ELLE FANNING, CHRIS PONTIUS