The inner life of Hollywood stands as a unique topic in American movies, and one handled with various levels of intimacy and honesty. Films like La La Land and Singin in the Rain provide very user friendly, entertaining depictions of Hollywood, whilst films such as Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard, scathing indictments of Hollywood and stardom, are inherently more interesting, but also much harder to do effectively. Sofia Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere definitely lies in the latter camp, and achieves this criticism of the Hollywood system with varying success.
Sofia Coppola’s films have always been concerned with the bored, rich, and famous (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring), and in Somewhere we meet what has to be her most bored protagonist, if not her most rich and famous. The film follows international film star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) as he drifts mindlessly through press junkets and parties promoting his new film. He is a sex symbol, women unanimously throw themselves at him, and his daily life is rife with indignant texts from ex lovers and suggestive encounters with strangers. He seems to be going through the motions of the most typical vacuous Hollywood lifestyle you could imagine, when out of nowhere his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up at his door; her mother has seemingly decided she needs some time to herself and decided to drop her daughter with Johnny, notorious for his debauchery and alcoholism. This selfless act of brilliant parenting is never really engaged by the plot, Johnny, or Cleo with anything resembling an interrogative manner, and this is fine seeing as the movie isn’t about her, yet it becomes a beacon of how this film leaves us longing for more backstory.
The whole movie concerns Johnny’s unhappiness, but we aren’t given any of his unhappiness to feed on, or invited to sympathise or empathise with him. He is entirely withheld from the camera as well as the women in his life, and we only really identify that he’s suffering because he is going through all the motions of a depressed Hollywood narcissist. His daughter, supposedly, provides a catalyst for a more personal change in his life. We don’t see it. He still beds random women (this time, with his daughter under the same roof!), he still vainly drives around in his convertible, he doesn’t appear to forge any meaningful connection with his daughter or show any interest in her life (he watches her ice skate, once). When he walks from his car at the end of the film in a cathartic fit of ecstasy, it feels totally unearned and the viewer is not brought along with him.
That said, the film is not without its own merits. Coppola’s imagery is powerful, particularly in a scene where Johnny is getting a head cast done for an upcoming role and has to spend 45 minutes still under a full head cast. After the cast is on, the technicians leave the room and we are alone with Johnny, as he is trapped in this all encompassing face mask. He can breathe, but he cannot feel, see, hear, or touch. In another scene we see, all in one wide shot, Johnny leaving a limousine, entering an unknown lady’s apartment, and leading her into bed. These images provide a much more powerful image of Johnny’s isolation, and vacuous fortune, but they are too few and far between to provide a resonant character.
Somewhere is a lukewarm negative review of Hollywood with all the character depth of the lives of the stars of which it is so critical. Significant imagery, but not a significant film.