The double-edged sword of the Hollywood lifestyle has long been a topic of fascination for filmmakers, despite not always holding the same appeal for audiences. Sunset Boulevard is one of the great success stories in the field, where Woody Allen’s Celebrity would be one of the most notorious flops. Loneliness has been a thematic watermark throughout all of Sofia Coppola’s work and having grown up in the Hollywood spotlights as the daughter of one of the world’s most famous directors, has all the credentials to mount an impressive critique of the truth behind the glamourous film industry façade. But writing from such a privileged vantage point holds as many dangers as it does advantages. Having always been made by people working within the system, the Hollywood exposé walks a fine line between offering a legitimate exploration of an extraordinary lifestyle and falling prey to pitying self-indulgence.
Coppola’s last film, Marie Antoinette, used the Versailles aristocracy of 18th Century France as an analogue for the dangers of living among the rich and famous and was her least well-received film to date. Somewhere maintains her focus on fame, but in many ways signals a retreat into ground more successfully covered by her Oscar-winning Lost In Translation. That film featured a world-weary movie star rediscovering himself through a platonic friendship with a younger woman. Here the action is moved from Tokyo to the Château Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, notorious haven for movie star debauchery, with the star role filled by Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco (one of those names with just the right amount of cheesy swish for a superstar character, but would never be used in real life) and the young woman by his daughter Elle Fanning’s Cleo.
Despite the similarities, the opening shot demonstrates the difficulties this film faces in recapturing the Lost In Translation magic. Scarlett Johansson’s taxi ride through the neon cityscape of Tokyo was at once stunning and alienating, relating her character to the audience by a mutual sense of awe and fear at the sights beyond her taxi window. Somewhere opens with a static shot in the desert of Marco’s sportscar doing laps around a track in the desert. The symbolism is slap-in-the-face obvious (this is a man whose lifestyle is taking him nowhere) but the visual does not draw the audience in or evoke any emotional response. Lost In Translation worked because the audience shared in the characters’ experiences, our perceptions of the city growing with theirs. Perhaps to Coppola, Somewhere feels the same. But for everyone who hasn’t been in the spotlight since birth, this experience is more like watching a scene unfold through a distant window.
Without that connection, the multitude of other callbacks to Coppola’s most successful work to date come across as lazy. Hotel room sterility is again used as a motif for the emptiness of a life lacking a place to call home. Gags are repeated verbatim, with a mid-film excursion to Italy for Marco to collect an award an insultingly desperate return to the well. The baffling Japanese game show experience becomes a baffling Italian awards ceremony, another one-word answer to a question is given an improbably lengthy translation, Marco has to deal with a press conference of ridiculous questions in the same way that Bill Murray’s Bob Harris struggled to understand instructions on a photoshoot, and so on. The press conference scene in particular, both in the questions and Marco’s curt responses, seems so staged and phony that it evokes eye-rolling rather than laughs, especially when the inevitable “Who is Johnny Marco?” question is asked directly, like Coppola couldn’t quite trust her audience to keep up with even the most obvious of themes on their own. Even on Johnny and Cleo’s return to the Marmont, we get a rehash of Anna Faris’ hilarious karaoke rendition of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ via a Mexican waiter’s mauling of Elvis’ ‘I’ll Be Your Teddy Bear’. Only a chance encounter with Benicio Del Toro in a lift, which has to be a joke at Scarlett Johansson’s expense (google it if you don’t know), gets anything approaching a laugh out of a Lost In Translation memory.
Even in the areas where the film manages to differentiate itself from Lost, the writing is no better. For all Coppola’s experience of Hollywood, she seems to assume that we’ll take it as given from previous representations of movie stars on screen that Marco will be leading a life of empty debauchery, even if what we see really doesn’t seem to present him as much of a bad guy at all. He has strippers performing in his room, but their routine is pathetically tame and they pack up and leave immediately afterwards. He sleeps around, but doesn’t seem to be cheating on anyone (he’s already divorced) and makes a concerted effort to prevent his daughter from seeing that side of his lifestyle. Coppola can’t even seem to decide how famous she wants her leading man to be: he’s never hassled by the paparazzi and left completely alone during a party in his own room, yet in Italy is hailed by a presented as the biggest name in Hollywood. Marco might be sleazy but otherwise doesn’t come close to the real-life levels of sickening narcissism held by people corrupted by even a smidgen of power. Consequently, his scenes with his daughter don’t show much sign of personal evolution (other than him having someone to play Guitar Hero with) and the end of film epiphany fails to stick. Lost In Translation got away with not much happening because we could see the characters evolving through their time together. Without any such growth evident here, the film’s pace feels more lethargic than pleasurably relaxed.
Elle Fanning’s natural charisma as Cleo just about holds the film together at the straining seams, enlivening her every scene with the good-natured energy of the youthful innocent. Even when she has to pull an emotional shift rather out of the blue, she has built up goodwill with the audience to earn our sympathy where the writing doesn’t. Stephen Dorff is decent too, but hardly stretched by the material and his career on the C-list and good looks are nowhere near as naturally evocative as Bill Murray’s withered visage and career as funnyman to contrast with his character’s melancholy – given the similarity between the two characters, such comparisons must be made. If the title Somewhere was chosen as emblematic of Johnny’s directionless lifestyle and alienation from the real world, Coppola’s own trading on her past success shows worrying signs of a promising talent having nowhere left to go.