Sofia Coppola seems to exist to enrage people to an unreasonable degree.
When “The Godfather Part III” opened in 1990, I was managing a movie theater, and I heard the open hostility that some audiences had for her, hostility that they walked into the theater with because of the way the press treated her. It was such a big media story, with Winona Ryder dropping out and Coppola stepping in, and people were so incredibly unkind to her before the film even opened that it felt almost pre-determined. I like her work in that film. I think she’s a very unaffected, natural Mary, and her inexperience in front of the camera actually made it more piercing at the end of the film.
1999 was an amazing year of film, and I would rank “The Virgin Suicides” among the very best of the movies that came out that year. In it, Coppola established a voice as a filmmaker that, upon reflection, seems to have already been firmly established with “Life Without Zoe,” the segment of “New York Stories” that she wrote, and “Lick The Star,” a great little short film about a bunch of mean girls. For her first feature, Coppola tackled a difficult piece of source material, the Jefrey Eugenides novel, and found a way to make a film that felt like broadcasts from inside these characters. Her use of music and perspective and her refusal to fill in the narrative around the dreamlike structure she built made “Virgin Suicides” a sensory experience that lingered.
For many people, “Lost In Translation” was the introduction to her work, and it’s still the film she is best known for. Bill Murray will most likely never make a film like this again, a movie that perfectly harnessed his sad clown persona to reveal a romantic subcurrent that he’s never quite played this perfectly anywhere else. Scarlett Johansson, who I frequently think is a bit of a gorgeous blank onscreen, was perfectly suited to play against Bill, and he seemed to tease an inner life out of her that we don’t see in other roles. Coppola continued to refine her ability at casting a mood more than telling a story, and it was surprising to see how the film was embraced by the mainstream. Coppola’s movies, as much as the films of anyone working right now, are personal and without apology about that.
I’m guessing it was precisely because the tiny, tender “Lost In Translation” became much bigger than expected that there was so much attention on her follow-up, 2006’s “Marie Antoinette.” I’m not a fan of the film, but the way people tore into it and the personal way they tore into Coppola felt like “The Godfather Part III” all over again. I can’t imagine she reads anything written about herself, because there’s so much zeal behind the venom towards her that there’s nothing for her to learn from it. It’s not constructive. It’s sport for her detractors at this point. I’m amazed how there are people who still seem actively angry at her simply because of who her father is, and how little they seem to actually look at what it is she does as a filmmaker because of that bias.
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that dealing with a famous father is the starting point for her new film, “Somewhere,” which stars Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning. He’s a movie star named Johnny Marco, hollowed out from years of indulgence, and she is Cleo, his 11-year-old daughter, dumped on his doorstep by a mother in meltdown. Johnny’s given a vague deadline about getting her to camp, but there’s no real urgency to it. And I’ve ready a few descriptions of how the film deals with Marco learning how to be a better father, but I wouldn’t really say that’s accurate. Johnny and Cleo don’t have any giant fake epiphanies, but they don’t stay unchanged by their time together, either. It’s another mood movie for Coppola, capturing the world of hotels and constant air travel and lovely diversions, and what I find most interesting is the way the film never quite lands as being either Johnny’s story or Cleo’s, but instead exists as the tension between these two strangers bound only by blood and, once in a long while, geography. And both actors do what Coppola needs of them, even though I’m not sure it’s enough.
Cleo is not played as a bruised little victim, all alone because of famous daddy, but she’s also not a preternaturally poised miniature adult, all one-liners and self-confidence. She basically just feels like any modern 11-year-old. She enjoys the perks of traveling first class like swimming in your own personal pool in your hotel suite, but she just enjoys it the way any kid would. There’s no entitlement, and there’s not even much in the way of expectation. Cleo’s just sort of blown through life by the twin forces of her parents, landing wherever she lands. This particular moment with Johnny is a good one, a new set of treasured memories, but there’s no real indication at the end of the film that Johnny’s any better at the real work of parenting, and Cleo seems well aware of just how low she should pitch her standards when it comes to her parents.
Dorff spends much of the movie floating along on a cloud of pain pills and booze, idly chasing whatever tail happens to cross his path, and more than anything, he seems to be insulating himself from self-awareness. In his moments of clarity, he’s almost embarrassed about his success, his money, people’s interest in him. The only genuine glimpses we get of him are the unguarded moments where he and Cleo get past all the bullshit, all the resentment, all the fear, and just enjoy playing with each other, father and daughter finally speaking that secret language we have with our kids.
Yes… Johnny Marco is very rich. But that basic fundamental desire to do right by our kids and that equally fundamental fear that we are getting every single important thing wrong… that’s not something that is related to money in any way. That’s something that keeps me up nights, something I’ve had a lot of time to consider this year while spending time away from my own kids because of work. I am tired of hearing movies reflexively dismissed because a character has money. Money doesn’t solve every problem; it just introduces different ones. No matter what Coppola’s subject, what she demonstrates in “Somewhere,” as with her earlier films, is an ability to bottle these moments, to create these tiny little pockets of memory and mood that you can dip into, each one a full sensory experience. “Somewhere” is slight, and I think even for the type of storytelling that she’s obviously fond of, it’s a bit unfocused, but it has a real voice. The photography by Harris Savides (whose work on films like “Zodiac,” “Birth,” and “The Game” mark him as a ferocious talent) is gorgeous, and it’s very evocative. He knows how to give equal weight to the crushing hotel boredom of a movie junket and the momentary freedom of time spent swimming with your kids. And Phoenix contributes a lovely score to the film, a perfect complement to the feeling she’s trying to capture.
“Somewhere” is not a major step forward for Sofia Coppola, but if you like her work, you’ll recognize her particular vision once again. She may never be a blockbuster director, but as long as she stays true to her interests and her point of view, I’ll stay interested.
“Somewhere” opens today in theaters.