Thursday, January 6, 2011

A star on the road to nowhere

Director Sophia Coppola books first-class on a journey that goes nowhere.

Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere opens to the sound of a well-tuned Ferrari engine. The sleek black car -- I'm guessing a price tag that tops $150,000 -- enters the frame, disappears and then re-emerges. It soon becomes clear that this expensive, carefully calibrated vehicle is circling a track. More significantly, the car’s impressive arsenal of capabilities seems at odds with any functional imperative: Car and driver are going nowhere.

You get the idea, I'm sure. Coppola’s excessively languid portrait of Johnny Marco, a movie star played by Stephen Dorff, is about to introduce us to a life that seems to have lost all sense of purpose.

As the picture unfolds, we learn that Johnny, the driver of the car in Coppola’s opening, has taken up temporary residence in the Chateau Marmont, a Los Angeles hotel where celebrities command apartment-sized living spaces while protecting their privacy.

Johnny takes advantage of this privacy in a variety of less-than-creative ways. Early on, he hires two blonde pole dancers to cavort for him. (They bring portable poles.) He wanders through the parties that seem to emerge effortlessly around him. In moments that feel acutely vacant, Johnny plants himself on the sofa, smokes cigarettes and swigs beer from a bottle, surrounded by whatever passes for his thoughts.

So what’s the point and should we care?

How you answer those questions goes a long way toward determining how you’ll react to Somewhere, which either can be viewed as an immersive portrait in the life of a movie star whose success has allowed him to lose touch with reality or as an enervating act of directorial indulgence in which interminable pacing masquerades as insight.

I fall somewhere between these two extremes.

If Somewhere remains watchable, it’s partly because Dorff makes Johnny semi-sympathetic. He’s capable of moments of genuine tenderness, and he has fun with his 11-year-old daughter, Elle Fanning’s Cleo. Thankfully, Johnny doesn’t lord it over people who work at the hotel. He’s not prone to rampant displays of ego -- or of anything else for that matter.

Johnny’s tendency to indulge his impulses (ordering every flavor of gelato in a posh Italian hotel during a publicity tour) sometimes puts him on a level playing field with Cleo, although – truth be told – Cleo often seems more mature than her father, not to mention more in touch with reality.

While driving Cleo to a figure skating lesson, a suspicious Johnny wonders whether an SUV might be following his car.

“There are kind of a lot of those in LA,” Cleo observes, reminding Johnny (and us) that she’s in touch with a reality that her father mostly manages to evade.

Coppola, who grew up around the movie business, presumably knows a thing or two about Hollywood. Johnny’s dutiful but detached attitude toward publicity seems credible, but Coppola extends Johnny’s sense of detachment to nearly everything. In the plush cocoon in which Johnny resides, life has turned into the equivalent of 24-hour room service. Ask, and it shall be delivered.

Perhaps to give us a sense of the way time seems to expand in such an insulated environment, Coppola holds shots for a very long time, far past the point where they have anything more to reveal. And she (purposefully, we presume) tells no story because story would be antithetical to a world in which luxury begins to feel like sensory deprivation.

At one point, Johnny attends a session where a couple of effects artists make a mold of his head. Quietly, he vanishes inside the hardening mask; it’s part of a process to make him look like a 90-year-old for his next role. It’s as if Johnny’s being buried alive, consumed by the demands of a profession he doesn’t seem to enjoy.

A movie about a pointless existence becomes meaningful to the extent that we identify. Johnny’s world of over-saturated luxury is not one that most of us have experienced, and when we step back, we may wonder why this star seems to have no passion for acting.

Is it the fault of a business that has no passion for anything but commerce? Is he just a jerk, as the anonymous text messages he occasionally receives claim? Is there nothing about fame that he enjoys?

I went a long way with Somewhere, hoping that Coppola, whose work (Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette), I’ve mostly liked. I hoped that Coppola finally would reward my patience. But rather than feeling for Johnny, I began to experience the same sort of numbness that encases his life.

Despite an ending that may suggest otherwise, Johnny remains on the road to nowhere – as Coppola’s opening shot suggests. That’s a valid point, I suppose, but it infects the entire movie. Before Somewhere concludes, you may find yourself wondering why you’ve been given a first-class ticket on a journey with no real destination.

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