by Mel Valentin
Pick up a random introduction to screenwriting book or take a screenwriting/fiction-writing 101 class, and the phrase you’ll hear repeatedly, “write what you know.” Whether you believe in the soundness of that advice or see as needlessly constricting, it’s advice writer-director Sofia Coppola ("Marie Antoinette," "The Virgin Suicides") firmly believes in. Her fourth film, "Somewhere," returns to the ennui-among-wealthy-movie-stars territory that helped her win Oscar for Best Original Screenplay seven years ago for "Lost in Translation." In a controversial decision, the Venice International Film Festival awarded "Somewhere" the Golden Lion Award for Best Picture, controversial because longtime friend/filmmaker Quentin Tarantino headed the jury.Somewhere opens with the first of seemingly endless static shots: a sun-baked day, an open, featureless road, a high-end sports car passing the camera several times. After several minutes, Johnny Marko (Stephen Dorff), Hollywood action star/movie star (purportedly based on Johnny Knoxville), stops the car, stepping out to contemplate…something, something ineffable (perhaps). That something, vacancy, vapidity, maybe even ennui, is what Coppola will explore for the next hour-and-a-half as she follows Marko stumbling through a movie-star day: waking hung over, popping pills, contemplating himself in the mirror, smoking, drinking, and more drinking, before breaking his arm in a drunken fall, and, presumably in a medication-fueled haze, drifting off as two generic, pneumatically enhanced, unenthusiastic blonde strippers dance around portable poles.
"A one-note effort from a one-note filmmaker."
The general monotony of Marko’s day-to-day (non)existence is broken up by a press conference for a new film, “Stealth Agent,” banalities exchanged with his unhappy co-star, a brief visit from his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), that takes him to an ice rink for an afternoon practice session, the realization (his and ours) that contact with his daughter has been infrequent (she’s been ice skating for three years, something he just discovers), before a planned trip to Milan to receive an award and promote his film goes slightly awry when his daughter’s mother flakes out (a first, apparently), forcing Marko, probably for the first time, to become more than just a part-time father, thus setting up Marko’s almost imperceptible character: from egocentric movie star to caring father.
In just her fourth film, Sofia Coppola seems to have run out of ideas. While it’s not unusual for filmmakers to return to favorite themes, situations, storylines, and character types (and arcs), it usually takes more than three films before they borrow so heavily from an earlier success. Coppola, wistful for the time, seven years ago, when she was feted as the next, great screenwriter-director, a position once held by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, borrows the two-character set-up, the hotel setting, the long, pregnant pauses, the static camerawork, and even throws in a tangential trip to another country, this time Italy instead of Japan, for culture-based humor, some, if not all, broad and caricatured, with one difference, albeit an important one: instead of focusing on an unconsummated romance between mismatched lovers (or potential lovers), the focus is on the relationship between a father and his almost-teen daughter.
Coppola leans heavily on Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning to create and convey inner lives for her characters, characters who, in European Art Cinema tradition (Coppola cited Michelangelo Antonioni and Wong Kar-Wai at the Oscar ceremony seven years ago), say little and when they speak, banalities (supposedly banalities hiding complex truths), emerge. Coppola lucked out with Bill Murray for Lost in Translation, both because he was/is an actual movie star with movie star baggage and audience expectations, but also because she could count on Murray to improvise his way through underwritten scenes. Dorff, an actor who’s spent the better part of the last decade in marginal films, isn’t, obviously, an actor of Murray’s caliber or star power, but he pulls off a convincing performance, as does Elle Fanning, who both resembles her older sister, Dakota, and her talent.As for Coppola, it’s time for her step outside her comfort zone of expensive hotels in and out of foreign countries, of disaffected movie stars and their (supposedly) unfulfilled, unfulfilling lifestyles and maybe, just maybe, go out into the world and expand her experiences so her next film will be less familiar and maybe, just maybe, more adventurous, narratively and thematically. Or she can claim she always intended to make a “hotel trilogy” and make another film about older male movie stars and their involvement with younger women, perhaps a film about a fading filmmaker who, decades ago, won multiple Oscars, but who lost his creative spark almost long ago, and his filmmaker-wannabe daughter who seeks him out, in a hotel, no less, to help her with the script for her latest project (or not).
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originally posted: 12/22/10 09:00:00