For those of us who abhorred Formula One racer Michael Schumacher for the cockiness and dubious ethics that were characteristic of his time at Ferrari, the first 15 minutes of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere will ring particularly true. In the wordless opening scene, the shiny red car is a visual metaphor for emptiness, loneliness and Los Angeles. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), who we later learn is a directionless movie star, just keeps spinning his sports car in circles. The imagery is as depressing as it is unsubtle.
Anyone who is familiar with Coppola’s work will know how this works. Marco lives alone in a luxury hotel. He does lines of coke and strippers. And then one day his pre-teen daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), shows up for one for her rare parental visitations. In the hands of a cookie-cutter Hollywood director, Marco would slowly turn his life around thanks to his life-affirming child. Since Coppola considers herself an auteur, she infuses every scene with melancholy. The wayward dad does see this rare family vacation as partially filling the void in his life. The sadness that permeates every scene shows that this will be temporary.
If all this reminds you of another movie, you have obviously seen Lost in Translation, an earlier Coppola film. In Lost in Translation, jaded actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) finds temporary solace in the company of the young Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). In a big city. At a luxury hotel. Somewhere is a retread of Lost in Translation and, like most remakes, is decidedly inferior.
The similarities even extend to the casting. Before Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s star had blown a fuse. In the same way, Stephen Dorff, after starring as Stuart Sutcliffe in The Beatles’ early-days biopic Backbeat and working in a few well-regarded indie flicks, disappeared from Hollywood. Elle Fanning is an up-coming star like Scarlett Johansson was back then, but about 10 years younger. Replacing an older man hoping to bed a young girl with a father trying to reconnect with his daughter does not lead to an original movie. The major difference between the two movies is quality. Lost in Translation was about emptiness; Somewhere is just empty.
The only saving grace of Somewhere is Elle Fanning’s hyper-kinetic acting which still manages to show that all the energy is a put-on, a way to hide her alienation from an absentee dad. Somewhere is too inert to have any life, but if it did, Dorff would be sure to suck it all out. And since he’s in every scene that is, to understate the case, a problem. To be fair, a character as stultifying as the one handed to Dorff was never going to be particularly engaging. It is hard to feel any pathos for Marco when he fails to grasp at the emotional lifeline handed to him by his daughter. A character like his doesn’t deserve it.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2011.