Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Somewhere" Review

"Somewhere" is a polarizing film, which makes it all the stranger that I find myself precisely in the middle of debate. Some hail it as a minimalistic masterwork, while others leave the theater rubbing sleep from their eyes. The latest film by Sofia Coppola isn't for everyone, and stands so structureless that it threatens to liquefy at any moment. With few cuts and most scenes playing out in even fewer angles, it's easy to grow impatient or frustrated with the director. What I admire about her film however is its commitment to capturing complete moments even at the expense of the audience.

"Lost in Translation" this isn't. "Somewhere" isn't anchored by as charismatic or immediately recognizable an onscreen pair as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The world of the former film is also more vibrant and alive than the Hollywood Coppola depicts. She dials back everything until "Somewhere" is essentially an exercise in simplicity. Many have found that quality refreshing, but I was left somewhat cold by the purely surface-level examination of the tedium of stardom.

I absolutely admire Coppola's intentions. Probably my biggest gripe with "Somewhere" is that it employs plot-bombs out of necessity. After 45 minutes of casual observation of our protagonist, burnt-out actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), Coppola inelegantly drops 30 seconds of expository dialogue into a phone call that sets up the rest of movie. It rings immediately false and seems out of place in an otherwise drifting film.

And there are some beautiful sights along the way. Coppola manages to transcend her sedentary camerawork with occasionally brilliant choreography. A pair of pole dancers performing a hokey routine springs to mind, as does a gracefully executed figure skating sequence. The director has a knack for using characters rather than set-ups to color our experience, but my problem with "Somewhere" is that not every scene is equally fascinating. Some merely communicate an idea and a feeling, but drag on for far too long. Admittedly, to truncate her moments would be to rob them of their intended impact, but as a moviegoer it's hardly thrilling to watch characters lounge poolside for the better part of a minute.

Coppola is at her most successful when she's able to wring the irony out of a scenario. When Johnny arrives in Italy to accept an award, we get a clear sense of the dichotomy between the hoopla of the entertainment industry and a jaded entertainer. That everyone around him is speaking in a foreign language completes the metaphor and makes for one of film's best sequences. Watching the character play "Guitar Hero" is comparably flat. That scene serves only one purpose: to demystify celebrity. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it boring, it doesn't offer any additional insight into the character.

But then "Somewhere" isn't just a portrait of a movie star but a portrait of a father, and Dorff and Elle Fanning deserve recognition for the flawlessly naturalistic relationship their characters share. Considered opposite her countless melodramatic peers, Coppola is in a league of her own. The people who populate her films never fail to impress with their nuance, but in this case I'm not convinced the filmmaking does them justice.

"Somewhere" is a film I find equally hard to love or hate, though I sympathize better with its detractors. Nevertheless, it posits compelling characters, great performances, and enough smart and amusing scenes to make worth recommending. Whether you leave the theater rubbing sleep from your eyes or having witnessed a minimalistic masterpiece, you have my blessing. Much like Marco himself, I'm neither here nor there.


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