15 March 2011

Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’

Banal Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous:
Dorff and Fanning at the Château Marmont

It was probably a mistake to see Sofia Coppola’s recent film, Somewhere, on a weekend when events in Libya and Japan must make the director’s concerns seem trivial — but they always do. Watching her movies, I’m reminded of the recommendation that students “write what you know”; in Coppola’s case, I’ve come to the conclusion that what she knows isn’t enough.

Growing up the child of wealth and privilege, in the shadow of a famous and accomplished parent, can’t be easy — not consistently, anyway. But most of the rest of us will have trouble feeling any pity. For Somewhere, Coppola returns to the backdrop of luxury hotels and Hollywood stardom, and to the themes of isolation that she already explored in Lost in Translation, that prize-winning exercise in (inadvertent?) bigotry.*

She’s quite good at developing an atmosphere of pampered anomie, actually, and she managed (barely) to keep me from leaving the theater. Having spent a few nights in luxury hotels, in the entourage of a famous man, I can vouch for the accuracy of many of her observations, and I can even see a little of myself in some of her characters. Coppola elicits relaxed, natural performances from the cast, and she had the sense to hire Michelle Monaghan (whom I admired in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), albeit for the briefest of roles. And that is the sum of Coppola’s achievement here.

From the opening scene, in which a car drives around in circles in a barren plain, we get the point: our protagonist, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is spinning his wheels. But Coppola keeps hammering away at that point. There are precisely three scenes in the movie that advance the plot, and all of them feel tacked on. The rest is padding, nearly interminable sequences in which we watch nothing happen.

Over the course of the movie, Johnny comes to realize that his lifestyle, as self-indulgent as it is pampered, has made it too easy for him to neglect the only person with whom he’s got a real emotional connection, his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning, poised and charming). It may seem like Charlie Sheen Lite, yet even when the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it’s a worthy story, and it might have been told with dramatic tension and compelling dialogue. Unfortunately, Coppola was after something else.

But what? Europeans, who have been known to make this sort of movie, often do so in order to attack the class system (which Coppola stops short of doing) or to make a larger point about human psychology (which Coppola doesn’t seem to have). Instead, in Somewhere as in Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, one can see autobiographical elements.

Aren’t Foreigners Funny? The Sequel

Coppola is a Hollywood princess, after all; she grew up behind the glamorous façade, and she knows what lies there. Unfortunately, I’m not sure she knows what lies on the other side: what the rest of the world is like, or why most audiences are going to find it difficult to sympathize with (or even take interest in) a guy who sits around feeling sorry for himself while ordering room service at the Château Marmont. It’s up to the screenwriter and director — namely, Sofia Coppola — to help out.

Since The Virgin Suicides, based on a novel by my Brown classmate Jeffrey Eugenides, Coppola has worked from her own scenarios, while her films have become more and more insular and remote. Tellingly, even Marie Antoinette (where again she had something other than her imagination to draw on) ended before the protagonist stopped wearing pretty dresses and confronted the outside world — the real world.

Kirsten Dunst as Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

Maybe Coppola should leave her own Versailles and take a year off and teach school somewhere, or work the checkout in a grocery, or join the relief effort in Japan, that nation she once found so comical. Or maybe she should just sit in a movie theater with people who don’t know her father and didn’t grow up in Hollywood.

I was tempted to say that watching Somewhere was like watching paint dry. Then I got to the scene where makeup artists make a cast of Dorff’s head; while he sits (and sits and sits), the plaster sets.

So thanks for the correction, Ms. Coppola. Your movie is like watching plaster dry.

The film provides conclusive proof that Elle Fanning can skate
and knows how to make Eggs Benedict.

*NOTE: At least this time the stereotyped foreigners are Italian, not Japanese, which may provide Coppola with a handy defense against charges of racism but which doesn’t explain why she doesn’t try harder to create real characters.


Anonymous said...

Interesting piece, but I wonder whether you have thought through the implications of what you write here. You mention that Coppola "grew up a child of wealth and privilege," that "Coppola is a Hollywood princess, after all; she grew up behind the glamorous façade."

You're 100 percent right. In this respect, Coppola is like the Hollywood elite in general, with their extremely deep pockets and (generally -- with a very few exceptions) liberal politics.

Again and again, liberals express the attitude that you can either take the side of the rich and powerful, or show some compassion for the poor and disenfranchised. But liberals, in many cases, are the rich and powerful.

If Coppola ever did follow your advice, step outside of her privileged world, and consort or work with cashiers or cab drivers, there is the terrible danger that she might be exposed to politically incorrect attitudes and viewpoints that might offend the delicate sensibilities of a member of the Hollywood elite. Working people in many occupations (I can tell you from personal experience) resent many liberal policies and laws, especially public accommodation and certain other laws that would bring down the wrath of the Justice Department on them, or get them hauled before EEOC investigators, if they took reasonable precautions to protect their safety. Every day we read about a cashier or cab driver getting blown away because he could not treat a prospective "customer" differently from any other based on appearance or other subjective criteria. Needless to say, the people who dreamed up the laws are not themselves in any danger at all. They tend to live on cozy campuses, in the white suburbs, or in Hollywood.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Wow, Rick. You've been known to stretch my point in order to make your own, but this is extraordinary. Seriously, when you've got something to express that has so little to do with what I've written, why not get your own blog and post it there?

For the record, I have no idea what Sofia Coppola's politics are. To judge from Marie Antoinette -- the film in which the subject might have been most expected to come up -- she's more interested in interpersonal relationships than in politics.

Since I don't find her work terribly persuasive, I may not need to worry about the prospect of her making films that take a position contrary to my own. But it's something to think about, the next time I'm watching one of her movies and my mind is wandering.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. If I've stretched your point (which I'll concede is possible), then what exactly would be the purpose of Coppola leaving her privileged "Versailles" for a while?

-- Rick