Dorff proves himself a winning leading man.

Sofia Coppola’s winner of 2010’s Venice Golden Lion, Somewhere, begins as obnoxiously as her similarly frustrating (but also very good) Lost in Translation. A stationery shot of a flash car driving around a looping track countless times drags on interminably, garnering a mixture of stone-cold silence and stilted chuckling from the audience at the London Film Festival.

The plentifully long, static shots are staged precisely in the manner that shot Coppola to international acclaim with her 2003 Oscar-winning drama, remarking space and how people choose to fill it, and using this to demonstrate the soul-destroying ennui that wears her characters down within their still confines. Coppola, therefore, gets little points for originality or innovation here – in fact, she takes her technique to almost laughable excess, lingering on two women stripping for a good three-to-four minutes, and similarly fixating on Stephen Dorff’s character performing the seemingly dullest of activities – but she has found for her study a unique setting and a wonderfully understated pairing in the criminally underrated Dorff and Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota).

Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a prototypical Hollywood action star, indulging the excesses allowed by his massive fame and fortune, when his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Fanning) is dropped on his doorstep after the mother unexpectedly bails. Marco must for the first time confront the nature of his reckless lifestyle, and attempt to forge a comprimise between his own decadent preferences and the responsibilities he must assume with a child in tow.

Coppola’s directorial flourish is negligible – you can take it or leave it – but Somewhere rises above its elliptical presentation thanks to Dorff who, besides being perfectly-cast as the good-looking film star (because that’s precisely what he is), finds himself in a rare situation of command, steering the production with his cocksure persona and aesthetic appeal (whereas he is usually relegated to supporting, albeit well-acted roles).

Much could be written about how divisive Coppola’s style is to be, for if that European minimalism irked you last time, you’re unlikely to leave this film with a changed mind. Indeed, the film is frustratingly vague with the details for just too long, and while the lengthy shots of repetition and monotony work to a point to reflect Johnny’s own boredom, the film itself is at this point a monotonous exercise, and it is hard to characterise the opening, sluggish portions as entertaining or particularly interesting.

Once Fanning’s Cleo shows up, however, things pick up considerably, as it causes Johnny to transform from a character of inert isolation to one of action and responsibility. Within this character dynamic, Coppola’s directorial style is reconfigured; no longer is Johnny staring, dull-eyed into the abyss of his television, but instead he stares at his daughter ice skating, gradually looking less and less at his ever-buzzing phone, transfixed by her cadence. Coppola infuses the scene with simple but important details, though to the same token, did we really need a near-five minute scene to convey this?

Though Coppola’s work is typically approximated as “high art”, she lets her hair down a bit here, making way for some sillier slapstick moments, and though he plays Johnny’s roommate Sammy well, Chris Pontius (yes, that Chris Pointius from Jackass) is a casting surprise likely to generate laughter. Ultimately funnier as a satire of the Hollywood lifestyle, though, Coppola writes about what she knows best; not only the luxurious apartments and free swag, but the monotony of the press circuit, and the ridiculously pretentious questions that can follow. A scene in which Johnny goes to a practical effects studio to have his head molded is among the film’s few distended scenes that really works, cementing how lonely Johnny is when the person is pulled away from the commodity.

Coppola also deserves praise for her unconventional characterisation; while Johnny is a hotshot movie star, he is also an affable, rather reasonable guy who comes across as pretty regular and not the diva-type so many stars purportedly become. This services the film’s comic bent well; his seemingly ordinary nature is juxtaposed with the absurd surreality of his overstated stature, causing him to wind up with the keys to the city when he ventures to Italy for promotional duties despite having done little but star in (presumably) mediocre action films.

For all the good it does, the film does not truly venture somewhere for almost an hour, though Coppola’s trajectory becomes slightly clearer once Johnny and Cleo are on the road; Cleo, a young girl, is at constant war with the various women who frequent Johnny’s apartment, denying her the vital stability she needs. However, conflict is hard to find in big, bright letters; there is a brief scene of emotional breakdown, but true conflict is nowhere to be found. The pic ends abrutply without a whole lot of melodrama, but it is delivered in a clear, satisfying manner.

Even more subtle in many ways than Lost in Translation, this, another travelogue of hotel rooms and insularity, is rightly going to be divisive, but Stephen Dorff has rarely been better.


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