Friday 10 December 2010

Lifestyles of the rich and famous: "Somewhere"

Is it just me, or are actors growing more self-aware as a species with each passing year? Last year's The Wrestler found Mickey Rourke more or less perfectly at home in the role of a washed-up coulda-been clinging desperately to his memories of the roar of the crowd, and hoping beyond hope in his heart for a comeback, one last shot at a title, whether a regional championship belt or an actual Academy Award. Now, in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, we find Stephen Dorff - of all people - playing a jaded movie star who looks rather to have lost his bearings, in life as much as in his career. Either those casting agents are really earning their money these days, or in both cases the actors involved are smarter than they look.

We learn almost everything we need to know about Dorff's indolent Johnny from two extended shots that make up Somewhere's opening five minutes. In the first, we watch the actor driving his black Ferrari round and round in circles in the desert, the activity of a man with - as the song suggests - no particular place to go. Next, we observe Johnny falling asleep in his Chateau Marmont suite, despite the presence of a pair of twin blonde freelance poledancers (they bring their own fold-up poles) whose bookings are presumably going to see a 250% increase as a result of their appearance in the film.

In other words, Somewhere might be considered the The Stephen Dorff Story, so closely do our assumptions about the actor's Hollywood lifestyle (however inaccurate they may be) mesh with what comes to unfold on screen. In the film's third shot, which is close as Coppola will come to outright action, Johnny stumbles down a hotel staircase under the influence of who-knows-what, breaking his wrist in the process; it's the first of several developments that threaten to snap the character out of this most Californian of funks.

For starters, there are the abusive text messages Johnny keeps picking up - a 21st-century update of those anonymous vitriolic postcards Tim Robbins' studio chief was bombarded with in Altman's The Player. More promising is the reappearance in Johnny's life of his teenage daughter (Elle Fanning), the product of a long-dissolved relationship, whom he finds waiting patiently for him outside his suite as he sets out on publicity duties for his last film and pre-production for the next - the actor's own equivalent of being between addresses. Johnny is characterised throughout as one who drifts: if he keeps nodding off, it's because the boundary between his real life and what anyone else would consider a dream lifestyle is here displayed to be thin indeed.

For all that Coppola - as the daughter of the man who gave the world the Godfather movies - has been born into this lifestyle, you sense she still grasps just how unreal this kind of life is: the parties that break out of nowhere, the endless random blondes offering themselves up to her protagonist, the ability to order all the ice cream on a room service menu, for shits and giggles; the fact Johnny gets driven around between appointments, as though on his own private cloud; that he has to submit, on an irregular basis, to having his face covered in moulding plaster (as an effects aid) and then wakes up to see an old man looking back at him in the mirror; that, indeed, he gets paid astronomical sums for doing all of this.

That a-word may be crucial, for what keeps Somewhere's analysis on the star system from lapsing into complete and terminal indulgence is - as it was in Lost in Translation, and again when Coppola appeared to transplant the court of Marie-Antoinette into an all-American high school - the filmmaker's decision to couch the lives of these landed few as a sunny form of science-fiction, detailing a West Coast equivalent of what for most of us would be unimaginable. For the flooded basements of Solaris and Stalker, Somewhere proposes five-star hotel rooms with their own en-suite swimming pools; for the gleaming space-stations of 2001, it swaps the set of an Italian awards ceremony; and for the curious civilisations of faraway planets, the film takes a trip to Vegas, which seems an acceptable substitute, all things considered.

Ironically, the film's Golden Lion at Venice - handed over by jury president Quentin Tarantino - suggests Coppola has made a film her Hollywood pals can hardly fail to recognise themselves in. Just as Lost in Translation featured Anna Faris as a scarcely concealed Cameron Diaz impersonation, putting the moves on the lead character's hubby, so too Somewhere spies in its party sequences dead ringers for Chloe Sevigny and Benicio del Toro, even before del Toro himself materialises alongside Dorff in the Chateau Marmont lift, which could just be a coded reference to an incident that may or may not have taken place between the actor and Scarlett Johansson at the time of Lost in Translation's release.

The cast are similarly encouraged to play versions of themselves, rather than other people. Fanning is a curious, precocious, multi-tasking teenager, at home with the Sudoku grid, the games console and the egg-poacher alike; her Cleo someone who's been obliged to adapt by this lifestyle, to look after herself in the absence of much in the way of hands-on parenting. Jackass's Chris Pontius is hardly stretched here as a lank-haired hanger-on and purveyor of off-colour remarks about female tennis players. We should, however, credit Dorff for investing Johnny with remnants of boyish, quizzical charm: the characteristics of someone who isn't quite there, but trying his darnedest whenever possible to be - as we might expect from an actor who's been at the fringes of this life for so long now.

The film is undeniably slight - it is, above and beyond all else, an L.A. story, which means any depth is inevitably illusory - and slips into outright tweeness when Dorff and Fanning begin gambolling around by the pool. But it's a sweet one, and finally very human in its quest for connection: yes, there's a lot of insider business going on, but I think the rest of us will recognise a degree of commonality in the sequence where father and daughter, having just checked into their Italian hotel, sprawl on the bedspread watching dubbed episodes of Friends - just because it's on, and because the faces, if not the words, are comfortingly familiar. This scene, like many others in Somewhere, feels like the work of a filmmaker whose still sometimes shaky feel for narrative propulsion matters less than her acute grasp of the delicacies of mood, character and place; far from the daddy's girl she was formerly dismissed as being, Coppola is coming to seem increasingly like a Claire Denis training bra.

Somewhere opens in selected cinemas today.

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