Sofia Coppola made a strong debut as a filmmaker with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, but it was Lost in Translation that made her a critical darling. Her second film did exceptional box office (especially for a film that only cost $4 million) and received numerous awards. After finding such success, many independent filmmakers choose to tackle more ambitious films as their next project. So it was with Coppola who chose to shoot her passion project, Marie Antoinette, with Kirsten Dunst in the lead and a budget ten times that of her previous movie. The picture was not given the same positive praise as Lost in Translation and was even booed the Cannes Film Festival. Coppola’s decision to use an anachronistic pop music soundtrack with tunes like “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow was a head scratcher for most. Personally, I feel Marie Antoinette is a widely misunderstood film as it was never meant to be an historically accurate biopic, but a piece of pop art and commentary on teenaged célèbre.
Taking the criticism in stride, Coppola has gone back to her roots with a low-budget and intimate tale of two individuals attempting desperately to connect. Call it Lost in Hollywood. Stephen Dorff plays movie star Johnny Marco, who has the type of career some predicted Dorff could have and should have had. Marco lives an utterly empty life as a glamorous Hollywood celebrity. This is symbolized quite bluntly during the opening scene in which Marco aimlessly drives his Ferrari in a circle out in the desert.
In between filming and press junkets around the world, Marco lives at the trendy Chateau Marmont, a hotel for the rich and the site of John Belushi’s fatal overdose. As an A-lister, Marco doesn’t just get room service; he gets strippers sent to his pad, blonde twin strippers with portable poles, no less. He runs through an endless parade of women. Most of the ladies practically throw themselves on him. Some send him anonymous profanity-laced text messages or tell him to his face how big a jerk he is. None of this sparks even an iota of genuine emotion from Marco. He can barely keep himself awake for the strip routines; he even falls asleep while attempting oral sex on a woman he just picked up. Only when Marco spends time with his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), do we see a softer side to the bad boy.
Marco gets the occasional day with Cleo, but the latest daddy day becomes an extended stay when his ex-wife dumps Cleo on him for unknown reasons. As more time is spent between the two, Marco comes to the realization of how much he has missed and how much his little girl is slowly becoming a young woman. This revelation hits Marco when he looks up from his Blackberry to watch her during an ice skating lesson.
Is it difficult to feel for a millionaire movie star who tools around in a Ferrari and has woman flashing him at random? Yes, it is hard to sympathize with someone who is so miserable, yet still has so much. Somewhere becomes a far more interesting film when it moves past mopey Marco to the father-daughter relationship. Nothing feels forced or scripted about their scenes as little events work to build their connection. Cleo makes Eggs Benedict for her dad and his pal (played by Jackass‘s Chris Pontius, of all people) and beams a mile-wide smile as Marco is honored at an Italian awards ceremony.
Throughout it all, Elle Fanning gives a wonderfully understated performance, one that ranks at the top of female performances in 2010. Fanning deserves to be at the head of the youth movement of actresses that includes Hailee Steinfeld and Chloe Moretz. When one of Marco’s one-night stands shares breakfast with them, Fanning brings a subtle change to her facial expression, a change that undoubtedly involves staring daggers at dad. Dorff compliments Fanning’s performance well and is more than suited to play the brooding movie idol.
Just as the actors adopt a minimalist approach to their parts, Coppola adopts an equally minimalist approach to her direction. The camera lingers on the characters’ inertia. The unique framing of the camera and the director’s fascination with the most mundane tasks owes much to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, which cinematographer Harry Savides screened for her. Coppola’s penchant for infusing her pictures with pop songs is absent here as she goes for a purely diagetic soundtrack, aside from a score by the band Phoenix (fronted by Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars).
When Cleo is gone, it feels like the heart has been ripped right out of Johnny Marco’s chest. It feels the same for the film as well. Elle Fanning is really the heart and soul of Somewhere and whenever she and Dorff are on-screen together is when the magic happens. Lacking that strong emotional core, Somewhere becomes a cold character study.