Is That It?
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Sofia Coppola
Were you possibly among the many millions of people dying to hear another story about a jaded rich guy living in Los Angeles who reinvents himself due to the presence of his wonderful young daughter? You are in luck. Star actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, in the 101st role he was not at all suited to play) has clearly never seen Californication, because it is loosely based on his life. Does every single man in Hollywood go around half-shaven, divorced, with a daughter of the same age (Dakota's younger sister Elle Fanning)? The answer is yes, and it is a relief.
Somewhere, which gets its U.S. release today, is Sofia Coppola's latest film, on the heels of the tragically boring Marie Antoinette. No one who has to work for a living could possibly feel sympathetic for the tribulations of an actor who lives on hotel room service, and no one who paid to see this film could possibly walk away feeling anything but pity for its creator and disgust for its hero. The drudgery of Johnny Marco having to watch twin strippers in his bedroom is only exceeded by the cruel vicissitudes of being a popular Hollywood star. If having a daughter makes people so warm and appealing, how come Harvey Weinstein has three and he's still a complete piece of shit?
Somewhere not only has the worst title of any movie this year, it also takes itself more seriously than Inception, which many scientists believed was impossible. Most grating about Coppola's directorial style is her obsession with long takes. Granted, extended periods without rapid cuts and reverse angles distinguish her films from say, Hawaii Five-0. But really, her exhausted Los Angeles scapes aren't visually stimulating enough to be engaging; images like those of Dorff's daughter figure skating on an open rink and Dorff's head ensconced in a foam mask for his new movie only pretend to be novel. We've seen these places before — nothing about the locales is exciting or unfamiliar.
Once Johnny Marco almost chases a woman back to her house after making eye contact at a stoplight, but when he gets to her gate and it closes on him, he drives home. For the briefest of moments we feel something like excitement, but then we retreat to the next long take. Quentin Tarantino and Catherine Breillat can get away with two minute takes because at the end of their scenes, Jews flee the Nazis or Caroline Ducey has sex.
Somewhere follows the basic cinematic outline of all such father-daughter partnerships. In the real world, teen girls are a thousand times more intelligent than their parents, operate high level machinery and text at a PhD level. In Coppola's world, they retain the innocence of Anna Paquin in The Piano. It's impossible to watch this film and not think about Katie Holmes, what with the masculine, half-shaven man-boy's total lack of concern for how his treatment of women might influence his daughter or anyone he cares about. Johnny Marco is such a misogynist that he makes his daughter's mother abandon them both, which is just about the cheapest trick in the screenwriting book, right after killing your main character's trusty german shepherd (Michael J. Fox).
All the serious misogynists that I have had the good fortune to encounter are unabashed and unapologetic. Only a truly deluded person could create the so-rare-it-doesn't-exist-in-the-wild empathetic womanizer. In the real world, there's no such delicate balance between sensitivity and insensitivity in one male body. When Ryan Reynolds was politely let go by Scarlett Johansson, he whined to his friends about her lack of effort in their marriage. Hasn't Sofia Coppola read Men in Revolt? The most masculine person in the world is Mr. Rogers, and he passed some time ago. Every other man in the world is more reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw if he dyed his hair brunette.
One morning Johnny wakes up for breakfast in Milan and both his daughter and his one-night stand are looking at him with the same expectant eyes. It's the kind of absurdly simple joke Coppola loves to play — every irony pretends to be new, as if she had recently discovered hypocrisy for the first time in recorded history and wanted to share it with everyone. Dorff's face, while far too inexpressive to ever make him anything more than a slightly classier Christian Slater, begs us to become sufficiently disgusted by how famous people are treated. On a scale of relevant or important lessons, this ranks somewhere between "don't put your hand in dog shit" and "being white is pretty hard."
In her most vacuous film, Lost in Translation, Coppola managed to make some people feel sorry for two of the least sympathetic people in the world. The fact that it is even worked at all is a credit to how effective she can be at convincing you the most uninteresting monsters are partly human. But we have a different attitude towards waste and excess than we did in 2003. Back then we could watch the husk that used to be the actor known as Bill Murray make vaguely racist comments about Japanese people for no reason and applaud afterwards. Maybe for the international audience this was like watching the National Geographic Channel. I really don't know, I am pretty sure even they think Twilight jokes and playing "I'll Try Anything Once" over a guy swimming with his daughter in a pool are overdone.
One of William Goldman's best ever essays was about why most plays were about putting on a play. He didn't have to account for the poverty of ideas that led to Broadway about Broadway, because it was obvious — people who spent their entire lives in theater naturally had no other life experience to draw on. Somerset Maugham's edict to write what you know is among the dumbest pieces of advice ever given about writing, and it has recently become more harmful than even he realized. The maxim of 'write what you know' is revolting self-help propaganda: you're good enough, you don't need to keep learning, your experience of the world is valid and complete in itself.
The number of possible life experiences is dwindling. Eventually we will all have one life experience, distinguishable only in small moments not accounted for by communal art. What draws divergent backgrounds into the Americam amalgam is the shared experience of life reflected in art, but the people who create this perception in the film medium are drastically limited by their own surroundings. The last thing you have to do is start making films about people markedly different from yourself, but the first thing you have to do is stop making films about people identical to yourself.
Here we have a life stretched generically over the same old surroundings. It is not simply the characters or the action or the sets or the dialogue that is so ubiquitous and familiar. It is the shots themselves — Stephen Dorff has looked in a mirror in every movie he has been in since 1995. The metaphor of a swimming pool is now a common sight in Tyler Perry sitcoms, let alone in films that purport to be taken seriously. The cliche of a man falling asleep while having sex was recently featured on an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. Wide angle views of cars driving down the Los Angeles freeway while subdued trance music plays in the background are about as entertaining as a colonoscopy.
The fact that Johnny Marco has a cast on his arm for most of Somewhere is so pedestrian a symbol I would expect it in some undergraduate's romance novel. The film's interminable 98 minutes roll on so uneventfully that outside of the occasional presence of Johnny Marco's cell phone and Guitar Hero, the entire plot might have taken place in 1970. The idea that this incredibly dull, prosaic movie won the Golden Lion (or as I call it,the Flying Aslan) in Venice is only slighter sadder than the possibility that Avatar made more money than the GNP of Michigan. (Thought: was the audience simply so relieved they didn't have to sit through Marie Antoinette that they gave her the award out of gratitude?)
The specter of Heath Ledger looms over the proceedings, since the resulting cinematic apologia resembles something like what a simplistic mind thinks when a father takes his own life through a combination of otherworldly excess and outright stupidity. Coppola's film is like looking at a squirrel that got run over by a car and vainly trying to bring the creature back to life with a screenplay. After Johnny Marco drops his daughter off for summer camp in a helicopter, our hero becomes uncontrollably sad, complaining, "I'm nothing." He moves out of his residence in the Chateau Marmont Hotel and leaves all his rich person gear behind. You see, wealthy and famous people believe they aren't the real heroes, they are just very close to the real heroes. They admit that their lives are essentially meaningless, and that the true pleasures can't be purchased by money, but as long as they have it, they don't really need it. They are so out of touch with reality they think a silly movie like this is reality.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the life of Mary McCarthy.