Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff, is sitting in a makeup chair at a movie effects studio having a cast made of his face. Chunky white paste covers his entire head with only two little holes below his nostrils for breathing.
For a solid minute, the camera slowly moves in on him sitting alone, waiting for the mold to dry. The audience is forced to sit, think and maybe become a little antsy along with him. Finally, the scene flashes forward and we see the makeup artist’s finished product – Johnny Marco, a ruggedly handsome thirty-something actor, now has the face of a decrepit old man.
This scene is probably the purest example of what Sofia Coppola was trying to do with “Somewhere.” She gives audiences a bare bones, no frills, down to earth look into the life of Johnny Marco, a movie star holing up in Hollywood’s famous Chateau Marmont hotel, living life on a conveyor belt of strippers, pills and constant parties.
Johnny has an 11-year-old daughter named Cleo, played by Elle Fanning, who comes into her dad’s hotel suite on sporadic custody visits. They get along fine, but the viewer gets the feeling that she’s little more than a brief phone call every other week for Johnny.
Cleo’s mother, suffering from an unspecified personal crisis, decides to put her parenting duties on hiatus and leaves her daughter on Johnny’s doorstep. Out of his comfort zone and suddenly having to care for something other than his black Ferrari, Johnny finds himself looking both backwards and forwards at his life.
He stands at a crossroads and begins to wonder if he really wants to still be partying at the Chateau when he looks in the mirror and the wrinkles aren’t just latex.
The bulk of the movie is Johnny and Cleo playing video games, driving around in his Ferrari, sunbathing by the pool and eating gelato in bed during a brief excursion to Milan. While most movies would have incorporated an emergency room visit or Cleo making a desperate plea for her father’s attention, “Somewhere” holds back and actually lets us get to know these two people in their natural habitat, not confined to follow the script on rails. The camera movement is slow and static and the dialogue is loose and often improvised.
To some viewers, this looseness is the movie’s weakness: nothing really happens during the course of the film. But to the people who are able to level with Coppola’s less-is-more style, the film is hypnotic and intimate. It’s quietly both funny and moving while sometimes teetering on heartbreaking, but never letting itself explode outside of its own meditative sense of reality.
Coppola succeeds at taking a snapshot of today’s celebrity-obsessed bubble of Los Angeles. The film is drenched in the California sun and the screen is bombarded with shots of endless highways, billboards and L.A.’s unique brand of plastic opulence. Johnny and Cleo’s interaction is a welcome oasis from the desert of superficiality for both the audience and Johnny himself. Watching this movie again in a few years could provide an attuned glimpse at a distinct time and place.
Dorff is an inspired choice for the role of Johnny, bringing a delicate mix of a bad boy dopey charm with understated moments of genuine vulnerability. Dorff looks to have a lot more to offer and one can only hope that this role puts an end to the lull his career has faced over the past few years.
Fanning is the true standout of the film. She has none of that jaded professionalism and eagerness to please that most child actors exude. She plays Cleo with a natural luminescence. She acts her age, but also hints at wisdom behind her wide eyes. It’s refreshing to see someone so young not be forced to play a wisecracking, beyond-their-years sideshow.
After Cleo finally leaves, Johnny is left, like the title suggests, somewhere between here and now, in the funk between the man he was and the man he feels he must become. Like with most of Coppola’s movies, she lets us share enough intimacy with her lost characters to allow them some privacy at the end to decide their next move.
We’re left with a glint of hope for him and that’s more than enough.
“Somewhere” is playing at the Tampa Theatre through March 3 with shows at 7:30 p.m.