Spoiler alert: If you’re planning on seeing this piece of dreck—and Ceiling Cat help you if you do—then be aware that I describe some of the plot below.
I guess I’m one of the few people who isn’t blown away by director Sofia Coppola’s movies. I thought that Lost in Translation was a good movie, but not a great one. Nevertheless, the critics loved it, and it was nominated for three Oscars: best picture, best director, and best original screenplay (it won in the last category). I wasn’t keen on The Virgin Suicides, either, and I haven’t seen Marie Antoinette—though I can’t imagine that Kirsten Dunst could be credible in the title role, even if it were a farce.
Yesterday I went to see Coppola’s latest movie in second run, Somewhere (2010). I won’t mince words: it’s one of the worst “art” movies I’ve seen in a decade. In short, it’s a long self-indulgent whine on the loneliness that comes with fame, and on the lack of real connection between humans (a theme recycled, of course, from Lost in Translation). That point, however, is adequately made in the first 15 minutes of the film. The rest is tedium. Nevertheless, it’s garnered considerable accolades, including the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and a 72% rating on the TomatoMeter.
Short summary: a young American movie star, Johnny Marco (played by Steven Dorff) goes about his lonely business, driving his Ferrari around Los Angeles, hiring pole dancers, having transitory flings with groupies, drinking heavily, interacting with his ex-wife, and trying to connect with his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, the one really bright spot in the film). He goes to press conferences about his new movie (where his co-star disses him) and flies to Italy with Cleo to promote his movie there. He takes Cleo to her ice skating lesson (texting on his phone as he watches her: Coppola’s heavy-handed way to show that he’s not fully engaged with anything), and deposits her at summer camp.
Finally, after an hour and a half of this, Coppola gets to The Big Moment. Johnny has a tiny breakdown in his hotel, crying on the phone and calling an ex-girlfriend, asking her to come over (she can’t). He confesses to her that he’s a stuffed man, a hollow man. What an epiphany! And then he drives his Ferrari into the California foothhills, abandoning it on the road and walking away—clearly an abnegation of his fame and present life.
Nowhere in this movie is there any lesson beyond “fame can be lonely.” You don’t care about Johnny, nor are engaged with his plight. I suppose the lesson is that rich and famous people can be lonely, too, but we understand that ad nauseum in the first half hour. And if Coppola’s intention with the long scenes is to “show and not tell,” she blows it all in the scene in which Johnny weeps on the phone and bewails his emptiness.
I bitched over voicemail to my cinemaphilic nephew Steven about this movie, for I had gone to see it on his advice. Here’s his dissenting email response:
In fairness I warned you that Somewhere was typical Sofia Coppola, but how could I dissuade you from seeing something I, myself admired? That would be like saying “I love this book but it’s not right for you”—patronizing, no? So, okay, the main character is a vapid prick. That’s fine, you don’t have to like him, just understand that like a lot of people who find fame young, he took advantage of the perks, not counting on someday approaching middle age with no real connections and no idea how to change. Coppola doesn’t cheat us there—when he looks up from texting to observe his daughter on the ice, he rebukes himself for the gaps in his parenting but then goes back to his phone—no phony epiphanies, just a sad situation for all concerned. Elle Fanning was sublime as the daughter, precocious but lacking the creepy “miniature adult” quality of her sister Dakota. And the camerawork, while self-aware, was gorgeous. There’s too little beauty in film today, and I’m not talking about scenery (female or otherwise). With her long takes and formalist compositions, Coppola is among the most painterly of directors, one of the few to favor mood over incident. To say she makes self-indulgent movies about spoiled rich people is to refuse to engage with stories that aren’t sprinkled with tenderizer; Never Let Me Go (fine film though it was) had the easier project of evoking sympathy for innocent victims. Coppola, like Antonioni before her, gives us characters who perhaps deserve their unhappiness, but were once like us and then said yes to money, sex and comfort without counting the cost. It’s ignoble but it happens all the time, as Coppola has every reason to know.
But I get the last word. The only good thing about all this is that, as you’ll know if you saw her act in Godfather III, Coppola is at least on the right side of the camera. But if you want to see a really great movie on the lack of connection between people, go rent Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, which I still consider the best movie to come out in my lifetime (it gets 100% at Rotten Tomatoes).