Sofia Coppola doesn't shy from dipping into the sophomoric, or indulging in the obvious, self-conscious metaphor. Her wispy, sardonic new Somewhere opens with a man racing his Ferrari in circles in the desert, entering and leaving the unmoving frame with the regularity of a metronome. What could that mean? On the other hand, a distinct sensibility often underlies Coppola's half-baked symbols — a feeling for tone, a knack for timing, and an instinct for the absurd. She will persist with her banal conceit, and after a few more laps with the car, the metaphor fades and out of it emerges something funny, and very sad.
The driver of the Ferrari is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a down-and-out Hollywood action star whose popularity might still be bankable but whose selfishness and hedonism have long since bottomed out. He has so little self-respect left, he'll stare blankly as a co-star sarcastically insults him during a photo shoot promoting their new film. He'll remain impassive as he endures having a plaster cast made of his head by the studio f/x department. And at best, he'll manage a tiny smile as he watches twins pole-dance in his suite at the Chateau Marmont for his waning amusement. In directing actors, then, Coppola has not advanced much beyond the Jim Jarmusch school of affectlessness and long takes. But, like the car in the desert, these sequences improve with repetition.
So far, Somewhere might seem a reprise of Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) — or, if you're inclined to an autobiographical interpretation, a version of her own youth with her one-time-dissipated father, Francis. Because Johnny's 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), is about to enter the story, pressed into his charge by his estranged wife, who appears to be going through some existential crisis of her own.
Despite her troubled parentage, Cleo seems well adjusted, and she's not fazed by arriving unexpected at the tail end of one of Johnny's debauches. Savvy and facetious, but also innocent and vulnerable, she makes the most of her new circumstances, appreciating the blurred moments of affection or badinage her dad is able to offer between bouts of booze-fueled indifference — though, in truth, she gets more quality time with Johnny's goofy pal Sammy (Chris Pontius of Jackass notoriety). Minimal though it may be, Fanning's performance is yet one more in a fine field of current adolescent actresses that also includes Chloë Moretz and Hailee Steinfeld.
And that's about it for a story. The rest is episodic, building to a kind of catharsis. Cleo tags along as Johnny goes about his marginal business. His publicity trip to Italy allows Coppola to condescend to silly foreigners the way she did in Lost in Translation. At one point, Johnny appears on an Italian awards show that's as ridiculous as Bill Hader's Vinny Vedecci spot on SNL. (The irony is that Somewhere itself won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.)
So Johnny and Cleo bounce off each other with the same kind of crusty-adult/winsome-kid dynamic that has worked on screen since, well, The Kid (1921), with periodic updates in such films as Paper Moon (1973) and Matchstick Men (2003). True to this formula, the interaction here, however sparse, between father and daughter brings home to both that something is missing in their lives. Coppola hasn't quite determined what that something might be, but it's somewhere in this movie.
Somewhere | Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola | With Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, and Chris Pontius | Focus Features | 98 minutes