In her three previous films – 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” which she adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and is the only film she didn’t write, 2003’s “Lost in Translation” and 2006’s “Marie Antoinette” – Coppola peered into what it’s like to be a girl growing into a woman. How does she find love? How does she lose it? How does she handle professional responsibility with her own wants and desires? “The Virgin Suicides” certainly ended in tragedy, which you can obviously guess from its name, and we all know what happened to “Marie Antoinette.”
“Lost in Translation,” though, needed more guesswork: Were Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) ever going to share more than the moments they had in Tokyo? Did their burgeoning relationship need more? Were their commitments to others more important than the ones they silently made to each other? And jeez, what did Bob whisper in Charlotte’s ear during their parting?
If those kinds of questions, the ones that come with ambiguous endings that directors leave in audiences’ hands, infuriate you, then don’t bother with “Somewhere.” It’s arguable that the film is about nothing, as Coppola follows her main character – bad-boy actor Johnny (Stephen Dorff) – as he meanders away time in his room in West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, works to promote his upcoming action film and struggles to fully connect with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who is dumped on his doorstep after her mother, his ex-wife, takes off. Johnny, now tasked with taking Cleo to camp in a few weeks, wonders when her mother is coming back. No one knows. What are Cleo and Johnny, this womanizing celebrity who sleeps with strangers on a daily basis and invites twin strippers into his room to perform synchronized dance routines on removable poles, going to do together? No one knows that, either.
Once upon a time, TV sitcom “Seinfeld” was about nothing, too, but at least Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine had harebrained schemes to string the episodes along. “Somewhere,” however, gives us less than that in terms of plot but simultaneously provides us with more emotionally. The film begins in a desert as a black Porsche loops over and over again – one, two, three, four, five times – on a barren dirt road, and then we’re at the Chateau Marmont, where a tipsy Johnny, surrounded by young women entranced with his good looks and his fame, falls down a flight of stairs. Now the man has a cast on his broken left arm, but that isn’t cutting into his game. Here come the twin strippers, doing a routine set to a song by rock band the Foo Fighters – and then Johnny is smoking a cigarette – and the strippers are back, but this time dressed as tennis players – and now he’s drinking – and then, finally, there’s Cleo.
Drawing a heart on his cast and inviting him to watch her at ice skating practice, Cleo is patient with her father’s ignorance of her life. She’s been skating for three years, but he didn’t know that. Johnny texts and plays on his phone during much of her practice, but she pretends not to see. And when her mother leaves her with Johnny, Cleo assumes the parental responsibilities he can’t – she cooks, she cleans, she hangs out with him and his childhood friend Sammy (Chris Pontius from “Jackass,” in a pleasantly real performance). Yet she’s still a child, and she’s still fiercely protective and adoring of her father. When a mysterious woman appears at the breakfast table during a trip to Italy, Cleo’s eyes capture all the fear and rage in her heart, that Johnny could replace her so easily for just another meaningless sexual bout.
Does Johnny understand enough about his relationship with Cleo to know how his actions affect her, though? As the film continues to look at their time together, it’s hard to tell. When a topless woman shows up in his hotel room’s bed, ready to party, he storms out, getting Cleo out of there so she doesn’t see the interloper. He pretends to have a tea party with her underwater in the hotel’s pool. But he also doesn’t have much to talk to her about, struggling to make conversation – they spend much of their time together in silence. Coppola inserts these contrasting moments in a fluid way that makes Johnny’s character development seem effortless. Is this the same guy who a couple of weeks ago at a press conference couldn’t answer the question, “Who is Johnny Marco”? Has he truly grown since then? Coppola uses a song from The Strokes in a critical moment of the film, and its lyrics – “10 decisions shape your life/ You’ll be aware of five about” – are perfect for the aimless, bumbling way Johnny wanders through life.
For teens, Coppola’s look at fame and its impact on both the star and those around him should be intriguing, especially given the gossip-heavy world we live in. Audience members should definitely be older, though – the film deserves its R rating with a few different sex scenes, lots of topless women, one nearly naked man and cursing – and patient, as Coppola gives us numerous long shots and repetitive sequences. Johnny spends a lot of time staring at strippers, a lot of time lying in his bed; we see him shower, with his cast-covered arm jutting out of the stream of water, a few different times. If you need rapid cuts, action sequences and shaky camerawork, you’ll hate the minimalism of “Somewhere.” But for those who have already let Coppola in with her previous films, then “Somewhere” is another welcome, but saddening, addition.