Movie take: Somewhere is nowhere

April 18, 2011 • 5:34 am

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).

21 thoughts on “Movie take: Somewhere is nowhere

  1. This movie must have been absolutely terrible if you took this much time to write about it. Usually bad movies deserve, at most, a 10-second review on Facebook.

    I usually don’t like movies or stories unless I idetify with one or more of the main characters. A spoiled rich guy who neglects family and friends would not get 2 hours of my attention.

  2. Nowhere in this movie is there any lesson beyond “fame can be lonely.”

    OK. But I can tell you that obscurity and poverty can be lonely too; so it’s not exactly an “If A then B” revelation.

  3. Being born at the end of the baby boomer generation, I find it difficult to identify with movies made during the past 20 years. At times I think the directors and actors are speaking a different language.

  4. I’m also not a S. Coppola fan.

    Lost In Translation? Yeah, it was OK. Just OK. Nothing special.

    I haven’t seen any of the others and I’m grateful to you for steering me away from this one.

    I’ll have to see The Last Picture Show (I am cinematographically-challenged!)

  5. Another Chicagoan — Roger Ebert — comments favorably and brilliantly on Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere:

    For my part: I’m well over 60 yo; a professional naturalist/field biologist/ecologist by training, depending on the decade; over that time I’ve seen each and every Woody Allen, FF Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, and Jane Campion film on opening day(to select a few directors); and nowadays I include newer filmmakers Sofia Coppola and Ben Affleck in that personal tradition.

    I read Patricia Highsmith and Jerry Coyne… and find time for other things.

  6. Coppola was indeed awful in “The Godfather Part 3,” but otherwise (Mrs. Lincoln…), that film takes too much flak. It’s certainly not as good as its predecessors, but it’s a competently made mob drama, and it completes Michael Corleone’s character arc in a worthwhile way. Plus, the in-film staging of Cavalleria rusticana was fun, vivid, and fitting.

    With initial casting choice Winona Ryder in Coppola’s part, it would have been a solidly good film. Still not as good as the first two, but then they’re an awfully tough act to follow.

    1. At the risk of being labelled ‘lookist’ I would certainly watch Coppola in front of the camera – she is a good looking lady! To me… 🙂

      1. Agreed…

        She’s lovely. A sculpted facial beauty, but ‘frozen’ from a movie POV. A bit like say Grace Kelly or Scarlett Johansson (Sofia connection there)

        For me, the sassy Linda Fiorentino has it all. A challenge for any man.

  7. “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.”


    The Last Picture Show was a really great book, too.

  8. Wow, your nephew is a bright, persuasive and no doubt very charming young man. If I were his uncle I’d bequeath him my fortune.

    Okay, a few things.
    -“the loneliness that comes with fame, and on the lack of real connection between humans (a theme recycled, of course, from Lost in Translation)” … and from Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita and countless masterpieces. She’s not ripping herself off; she’s mining a rich cinematic vein.
    -“texting on his phone as he watches her: Coppola’s heavy-handed way to show that he’s not fully engaged with anything” – If you found the scene artificial, go to the park sometime and note how many parents are more involved in their devices than their children’s play. It’s the socially accepted version of swigging from a flask, enabling one to be absent while present. As with all addictions, Johnny’s fleeting awareness that he’s blowing fatherhood does not cure him; a moment later, he’s returned to self-absorption.
    -“Nowhere in this movie is there any lesson beyond ‘fame can be lonely.'” – And…? If you want to send a message, call Western Union. I prefer the quiet observations and telling details that have always been Coppola’s strength, like the scenes of Johnny and Cleo interacting but not communicating (playing video games, having a tea party at the bottom of the pool – they seem happy in these moments, but they have nothing to say to one another).
    -“You don’t care about Johnny, nor are engaged with his plight.” – I don’t think you have to be. Coppola asks only that you invoke your own impressions of loneliness and isolation, imagine them as perennial, and ask yourself what Johnny did to deserve that fate. He took the cash and cars and women. Who at twenty would not? Twenty never thinks of forty.

    1. Disclaimer (in case you haven’t figured it out): “harrylime” is my nephew, who wants me to die so he can have my money.

    High Noon
    Taxi Driver
    The Night Of The Hunter
    Raging Bull

    The Misfits

    8 1/2
    Aguirre, The Wrath of God
    Bicycle Thieves
    Cinema Paradiso
    Das Boot
    Fanny and Alexander
    Jules et Jim
    La Dolce Vita
    La Strada
    Life of Brian
    Solaris (original)
    Talk To Her
    The Double Life of Veronique
    The Spirit of the Beehive
    The Third Man
    Wings of Desire

  10. I was lucky enough to be on the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee this last year and had the pleasure of seeing a whole lot of movies. Some were fun, some were great, some were thought provoking, and some were so-so. Only once in all the months of viewing did I actually ask for my hour and a half back. That time was spent watching Somewhere.

    It is at the top of the list of movies I will never watch again, and that is a very short list. In my professional opinion you have been far too kind to this film.

  11. The only one of her three movies I have seen is “Marie Antoinette”. It’s a treasure. Just don’t let any preconceptions get in the way. Just watch the damn thing.
    (I wonder if that’s the case for “Something”? Going on the polarised reviews, I’m willing to bet that it is.)

    1. I’m not sure that is the case here. I tend to be happy with blockbusters, romantic comedies,
      sci-fi and the like. Rather pedestrian fair by the standards of some. But the responsibility of being on a committee that was to pic nominees for awards got me out of that comfort zone and had me watching a lot of films I wouldn’t have seen outside of DVD.

      When I watched Somewhere, it was, as far as I knew, a film which had good buz and so was at the top of the list of films to watch early.

      My take on the film started to form when I spent several looong minutes watching a car go in circles with no dialoge and no context.

      Then it was 8 minutes before the first dialoge was spoken, and 15 or so more minutes of watching what had to be the least inspiring poll dancing ever.

      30 minutes in I was cutting my wrists and begging for my wife not to call paramedics.

      This was my idea of an art film. It didn’t want to make the point that some peoples lives are boring. It had to drag you into the experience for an hour and a half. A high school kid with an 8mm camera could have done the same without trying and with a much smaller budget.

      In short, the film was simply not entertaining.

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