Johnny Marco is trapped, and all the exits are blocked by beautiful naked women. An actor as oversexed as he is under-worked, Johnny (Stephen Dorff!?!) has holed up for an indefinite stay in L.A.'s notorious Chateau Marmont, a halfway house for celebrities and an orgy of inertia wherein fading stars seek solace (but settle for vacuity). He's a kind but defeated man, and he knows he's stuck even if he can't quite feel it, yet. With a beer in one hand and a plaster cast on the other, he lazily watches some Playboy twins come into his room and perform eerily choreographed pole dances, routines that are made all the more disquieting by their lack of nudity.
In short, if Johnny Marco weren't a Sofia Coppola character, he might be mistaken for a parody of a Sofia Coppola character. He's a small man and 'Somewhere' is a small film, but both are riddled with the nuanced surprises and silent cataclysms of the best short fiction, and what might seem like a retread or a self-involved bit of make-believe blossoms almost imperceptibly into one of the year's best films.
Sofia Coppola knows you better than you might think. Sure, three of her four films have ostensibly concerned the rich and the rather precious ennui by which they're plagued, but through Coppola the entitled are simply a means to an end, a conduit by which she can explore life's most valuable moments ('Lost in Translation'), dawning adulthood ('Marie Antoinette') or -- with 'Somewhere' -- a quiet retaliation to a life lived on fixed rails. These are things to which most audiences can relate regardless of background or class, and Coppola's characters are above the humdrum demands of the real world simply because the quotidian hurdles of pedestrian living would just get in her way. Money and its resultant headaches are often the agents of plot, and Coppola only feels free to explore irreducibly human turmoil if she can ignore that stuff altogether. To that end, she's never written a character who's as much a slave to his stasis as Johnny Marco, and when his 11 year-old daughter Cleo (an unassuming and note-perfect Elle Fanning) drops in to jump-start the story, Johnny just absorbs her into his routine.
Cleo's introduction is a perfect moment, but it's more of a blip than a reveal or an inciting incident. She'll eventually be dumped into Johnny's custody, but first she has to weightlessly drift in and out of his daily pattern with deceptive nonchalance, as if blown there by the wind and not a master storyteller. In fact, most of the film is devoted to the stultifying sameness of Johnny's existence, and Coppola perversely deploys her keen eye for observation and rare gift for visual metaphor as a method by which to rob potentially life-changing moments of their direct meaning (e.g. the scene in which make-up artists transform Johnny into an old man might be a cloyingly pivotal moment in a lesser film, but Coppola follows it with her movie's cheapest laugh, as if to underscore how Johnny is blind to even the most obviously transformative moments).
The closest thing the movie has to an action beat is when Johnny's jet black Ferrari -- the only place outside of the Chateau in which he's comfortably divorced from the world -- breaks down, rendering him absolutely helpless. Of course, he's immediately beamed back to the Chateau like a videogame racer who's jumped the course.
And 'Somewhere' depicts The Chateau Marmont as a twisted epicurean vortex so riddled with excess that exposed breasts start to feel like enemy ambushes. After making two consecutive films about people who only begin to find themselves after they're trapped in fancy digs against their will, Coppola's latest follows someone who finds himself in a gilded cage of his own choosing, slowly realizing the urgency with which he needs to get himself somewhere (!) else. There's a thin line between endearing and self-pitying, and Stephen Dorff's (!?!) sublime performance toes it with grace.
Johnny Marco begins the film a lot like Brooks from 'The Shawshank Redemption,' desperate to remain in the prison he understands rather than live in the free world he doesn't. Dorff has been something of a Hollywood wraith, and his casting, like that of Winona Ryder as a faded ballerina in 'Black Swan,' is self-reflexive and unflattering. But Coppola relies less on his withered image than she does his unexamined kindness -- Dorff is sweet and subtle, and he radiates a guileless warmth that forces you to root for a character who can't seem to enjoy his absurdly enviable life.
Aesthetically, 'Somewhere' is Coppola's simplest film, but it's as rich with detail as anything she's made. Every facet of the film conspires to lock Johnny in his limbo, from a seamless transition with which he and Cleo are teleported to Milan to Harris Savides' cinematography, which so blows out the L.A. vistas beyond Johnny's Chateau window that the hazy sea of white seems like a dimensional divide. The camera seldom moves (choosing instead to ponder static wide shots of empty rooms, thus giving the viewer all the freedom in the world but nowhere to go), and the usual cavalcade of pop tunes has been almost entirely replaced by impeccably sharp sound design. Informed by Antonioni and even David Lynch (especially in a laconic car-chase of sorts), 'Somewhere' ultimately resolves itself as the sweetest film that Chantal Akerman never made.
It's repetitive but never redundant, an inwardly spiraling movie that ends with a straight line that some will find jarring, others majestic. Johnny doesn't leave the film so much as he escapes it, and the beguiling final sequence should ultimately force even Coppola's most dedicated detractors to consider the character as more than just another bored rich guy. Johnny Marco is simply trying to make the things that are important to him important to him, and his first step back into the real world feels every bit as daunting as Frodo's first step beyond the Shire. 'Somewhere' might work on an exceptionally small scale, but it's exceptional all the same.