Stephen Dorff, center, and Elle Fanning, right, star in Sofia Coppola's… (Franco Biciocchi / Focus…)
"Somewhere" is a kind of road movie of the soul, a delicate, meditative look at a particular state of mind in a particular time and place. The latest from writer-director Sofia Coppola, it's a film in which doing less on screen is more and doing more is less, and if that sounds kind of Delphic, that suits the situation precisely.
Slight but often seductive and so deliberately not in a hurry it periodically threatens to dissolve right in front of our eyes, "Somewhere" is more successful in creating ambience and visual imagery than it is in telling its story of a movie star bonding with his 11-year-old daughter.
In fact Coppola credits a conversation she had with masterful cinematographer Harris Savides (best known for his dreamy work with Gus Van Sant) with inspiring the project. They talked about collaborating in telling a story with maximum simplicity — "I wanted the whole thing to be understated and subtle," the director says — and that's been accomplished here.
Savides' striking visuals turn out to be the film's major strength. "Somewhere" was not only shot primarily in Los Angeles, it feels like the city the way few films do, not only because of familiar locations such as a Big 5 sporting goods store, Sunset Plaza and the 101 Freeway heading north, but because the place's air of impermanence and particular quality of light have made it onto the screen. Even the film's title has an L.A. connection: Coppola says it was inspired by the use of type in artist Ed Ruscha's paintings.
Like Coppola's previous "Lost in Translation," "Somewhere" deals with themes of adult dislocation and free-floating ennui, and like that film it is set largely in a hotel, this time Los Angeles' clubby Chateau Marmont, the Sunset Boulevard establishment that functions as a de facto home away from home for movie business types.
Before we meet the hotel, we meet the man who stays there, Johnny Marco, and before that we meet his car, a jet-black Ferrari that's shown for several minutes speeding around an empty track at an empty desert location. Clearly, this is not a life that is going anywhere special at the moment.
When Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) gets out of the car, what he's wearing — the standard L.A. hipster uniform of black T-shirt, jeans, hiking books and sunglasses — marks him as the person we gradually learn he is: a louche movie star, kind of a combination of Johnny Depp and Steve McQueen, who is essentially killing time between projects.
Staying at the Chateau, Johnny breaks his arm in a moment of celebrity inebriation, and that puts a further crimp in a life of privileged boredom. Johnny serves as a poster boy for the excesses of celebrity, from pills to parties to the pouty women who seek his amatory attention, but the reality is that nothing involves him, nothing makes him happy, nothing keeps him fully awake, even during sex. The truth that Johnny is not a particularly interesting person is a drawback that never goes away.
What "Somewhere" is especially good at is detailing the unreal minutiae of movie star lives, something Coppola certainly is familiar with. Johnny has to attend a press junket at the Four Seasons Hotel, where real journalists playing journalists ask him deeply inane questions. He experiences the ministrations of an unconventional masseur as well as pole-dancing identical twins Bambi and Cindy (played by Playboy models Kristina and Karissa Shannon). And, in the film's most surreal scene, Johnny goes to a special effects house where his entire head is slathered in a kind of white goo to create a rubber mask depicting him as an old man.
The conventional dramatic focus of "Somewhere" kicks in when Johnny returns to his room to find his daughter Cleo ( Elle Fanning) waiting by the door. Johnny clearly is not a major presence in Cleo's life, but arbitrary complications mean that the two are going to spend more time with each other than they're used to.
Though the filmmaker, the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, has been firm in rejecting the notion that "Somewhere" is autobiographical, it is also clear, as she said in one interview, that this story is "informed by familiarity," and that knowledge helps give this particular situation added piquancy.
But for several reasons, not the least of which are obviousness and over-familiarity, this part of the film — the story of a celebrity living in a world short on meaningful connections who discovers that children are what matters in life — does not really have enough drama to sustain our interest.
This difficulty is heightened by the fact that, unexpectedly in a film that has been so beautifully reticent for so long, "Somewhere" ends with specific voicing of emotions in a way that feels forced and unconvincing. Better to have followed the example of "Lost in Translation," in which Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlett Johansson that only she can hear.
Still, though it loses its nerve in places, "Somewhere" has success with what it sets out to do. It's a quiet experiment, a minimalist tone poem that does more with less than we're used to seeing.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing at: the ArcLight, Hollywood; AMC Century City 15, Century City