I want to be one of those people who loves Sofia Coppola. I've been waiting for years now to see the things in this young director's work that so many of my smart colleagues do: a fresh, promising American voice (that much I'll grant) who's maturing and deepening with every film (that's where the Sofia-lovers lose me). I don't begrudge the woman her Hollywood upbringing or her scion status—many gifted directors, including Coppola's ex-husband Spike Jonze, come from privileged backgrounds, and it's certainly possible to be both the offspring of a great artist and a great artist yourself. With Herculean effort, I try to disregard Coppola's annoying persona in the press: the casually-yet-impeccably dressed, disarmingly soft-spoken designer muse, who I hope and assume is a reductive misrepresentation of the real person. But movie after movie, I find myself resisting the same things about the work itself. Coppola has a gift, I'll even call it a genius, for devising individual filmic moments that transport and transform both the characters and the viewer. She's the queen of fleeting brilliance, little glimpses of beauty and sadness and truth.
When a director is 28 years old, as Coppola was when she made The Virgin Suicides, fleeting brilliance is bounty enough. All that remains of that movie for me is the music-video-like scene in which teen lovers Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett make out in the front seat of his car, but I remember that scene as vividly as my own first kiss. Yet in the 11 years since, neither that Sofia movie nor any other has stayed with me as more than a delivery vehicle for moments. Bill Murray singing karaoke to Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation: glorious, but I still don't understand their relationship in that movie. Kirsten Dunst and her ladies-in-waiting consuming cakes and dresses to the sound of '80s pop in Marie Antoinette: scrumptious, but I might as well have seen that montage in isolation on YouTube.
Somewhere (Focus Features) begins very strong, with a great first shot that's a seemingly endless fixed take of a driving track somewhere out in the desert. A black Ferrari zooms around and around a track, making three or four complete laps, the only sound the harsh whine of its engine. Finally the car stops and a man emerges and stares out at the desert. It's a deliberately disorienting cold open that could have come straight from a film by Antonioni or Chantal Akerman, and it works beautifully, especially when soon followed by another, even longer take of a pair of identically dressed pole-dancers as they perform an elaborate routine in the incongruously cramped space of a hotel room. Where are we? What is this empty, science-fiction-like space in which luxury goods and women who resemble them are ceaselessly rotated in front of our eyes? Oh, it's Hollywood.
It's after these two arresting long shots that the storytelling machinery kicks in and Somewhere begins to feel less assured. The Ferrari driver and viewer of the pole dance routine is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a Hollywood actor who, we infer from the few details we're given about his career, is pretty near the top of the A-list. He's currently in between projects, doing junket publicity for his last standard-issue blockbuster while starting makeup tests for the next. During this transition, Johnny is living at the Chateau Marmont, a historic Los Angeles hotel you're no doubt familiar with from the countless magazine profiles in which stars meet journalists by the pool.
Johnny is depressed, self-medicating, and very, very lonely; these facts, already established by the two opening shots described above, are hammered home in a long string of insufficiently differentiated scenes. This first half of the movie is, to be sure, studded with powerful images. In one scene, Johnny's head is encased in some kind of latex putty to make a mask he'll need for an upcoming role, and we watch for a long time as he sits in a makeup chair, his head turned into a featureless, terrifying blob of goo. But the presence of two monster masks carefully placed in the background of that shot—plus the fact that several preceding scenes have made a similar point—blunts the impact of what could have a been a revelatory image. Fame makes you a monster. We get it.
The film improves—and starts providing some of those patented Sofia moments of transcendence—in the second half, when Johnny's 11-year-old daughter Cleo (an ethereal Elle Fanning) shows up at the Marmont, having been temporarily but painfully abandoned by her mother, Johnny's ex. The mother, who we experience only as a voice on the phone, "needs some time"—the 21st-century equivalent of Kramer-vs.-Kramer-era "finding yourself"—and wants Johnny to care for Cleo for a few weeks before dropping her at summer camp. In the scenes that follow, Johnny and Cleo loaf around the Marmont, visit Italy on a publicity trip, then head back to Los Angeles and loaf some more.
It's not the loafing that's a problem—many great films are about little more than the characters sharing daily life in all its tedium. (Bergman, Antonioni, Ozu, Whit Stillman—take your pick.) It's that the precise contours of Johnny and Cleo's relationship never emerge from the aesthetic fog. If Somewhere were a movie about a father and daughter not learning to connect—if it set out to be a chilly study in alienation that kept the viewer at arms' length from the drama—this narrative vagueness would be fine. But I don't think it's revealing too much (no more than the elliptical trailer does) to say that this is a movie about a father and daughter who are learning, however haltingly and briefly, to connect. As they do, there are lovely moments along the way—I adored a casual, improvised-sounding scene in which Cleo and her dad play a video game while Johnny's childhood friend Sammy (Chris Pontius) heckles them from the sidelines. But there's no discernible trajectory that joins one epiphany to the next, making Johnny's last-scene revelation—and his ambiguous final gesture—feel unearned and underwhelming.
Maybe Sofia Coppola is more of a tastemaker than a filmmaker, someone who knows what fabric would work with which buttons. She certainly chooses nice music—much of it here from her real-life partner, Thomas Mars of the French band Phoenix—though I wish she had eased off the pop songs in some scenes that feel overly engineered for emotional effect. And Coppola was smart to work with the great cinematographer Harris Savides, who, for the second time this year (he also shot Greenberg), makes Los Angeles look like an eerily-lit fairyland.
Coppola's known for working closely with actors and eliciting intimate, surprising performances from them. The small, ordinary-guy-looking Dorff is a little miscast as what appears to be a Brad Pitt-grade superstar, but he's excellent in the role, and Fanning—well, I'd call her a revelation if I hadn't already praised her here and here. It's almost bizarre that a child who's been acting since the age of 3 can deliver a performance this unaffected. She reminds me of Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, so fresh and spontaneous that it's hard to believe she knows there's a camera on her. If only Fanning and Dorff had been given a chance to do something other than float side by side in a vague, luxurious limbo. I'm not talking about the swimming pool at the Chateau Marmont; I'm talking about the movie.