There have been periods of my life when I have felt that the only meaningful thing I have ever done is help raise a child.
But when we first come across Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a movie star on a permanent time-out at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, it isn’t clear whether even parenthood serves as any kind of tonic for a life through which he now drifts. His days are spent driving his Ferrari, paying women to perform pole dances in his hotel room, drinking, smoking, partying. None of it seems to provide him with any stimulation whatsoever.
We should all have such problems, Yet somehow director Sofia Coppola makes us, if not relate to Johnny, somehow feel sympathetic to his plight. And yes, it takes awhile. At first glance, the arrival of his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) does little to alter the equation. His day with her, largely spent at an empty ice-skating rink, seems more perfunctory than anything else. You get the sense that Johnny parents like he performs in the big-budget blockbusters that made him famous. An ounce of effort and a smirk gets him through.
Slowly (probably too slowly for many viewers, given the glacial pace of the film) this begins to change, and then only barely perceptibly. The two take a publicity trip to Italy, where Cleo becomes both witness and prosecutor when directly presented with Johnny’s lifestyle. She’s knowing in the way that children who have had to grow up too quickly are. Nothing seems to surprise her, and her presence seems to give Johnny what he truly needs: a companion who isn’t trying to siphon from his celebrity and who serves as a grounding agent. Cleo is straddling childhood and adolescence in much the same way my own daughter is. One minute she’s a girl giddy over gelato and swimming pools; the next she’s making breakfast for her dissolute father and standing by his side at a casino.
Cleo needs Johnny, too. Her mother has wandered off. (We don’t know why. Coppola doesn’t do backstory.) And there’s a heartbreaking moment near the end of the film where her carefully cultivated reserve cracks and the little girl emerges, despondent about the prospect of a future at the mercy of an unreliable mother and father. We can forget that our children take their cues from us, and Cleo’s studied nonchalance feels like a product of parents who have transformed emotional distance into performance art.
The ennui of the idle rich was a hallmark of Michelangelo Antonioni, the director of such films as L’Avventura (1960) and a filmmaker I love, but whose critical reputation has suffered of late. His work (along with Fellini) is now viewed at the epitome of the self-indulgent European art film, one that places little importance on bedrock elements such as plot, character, and narrative in favor of stillness, image, and mood. That style didn’t play all the well in the 1960s and even less so in our modern hyperactive culture.
To that end, Somewhere wasn’t a movie that many people saw, that many critics loved, and that anyone really thinks about now. But obviously, it hit close to home with me. Coppola’s bare-bones structure does what all great art does, creates a space that is filled with the observer’s own emotional experience. And I would be lying if I didn’t offer that at many times, my daughter’s mere presence has kept me focused and prevented me from sliding into aimlessness. At its heart, Somewhere functions as a cinematic essay on how career success doesn’t translate into harmony and how family may be the only thing that can infuse a life with purpose. I realize that isn’t a universal sentiment, but, for me, it’s almost a truism at this juncture. Yes, that makes this another Male-in-Crisis film (similar to Coppola’s own Lost in Translation), but one that offers very few answers and even less of a sense of absolution.
“I’m nothing,” Johnny cries to his ex-wife near the end of the picture. And she, pointedly does not come at his call. She won’t make things better for him, whether out of indifference or exhaustion. That leaves him to his own devices. While the ending won’t satisfy anyone looking for any sort of a narrative closure, it does remain true to Coppola’s influences while it is, in its own way, mildly hopeful. Men can change. Or at least they can try. Maybe the point is first finding the hope that it is even possible. – James Oliphant