Monday, January 24, 2011

Papa Don't Preach: Somewhere

About two years ago, I seriously considered moving to Los Angeles.

I'd just had a falling-out with someone very close to me, which I thought at the time would be permanent.  One of my closest friends in the world was living in L.A. at the time.  And, well, it was a Chicago winter.  Who ISN'T California dreamin' in February?

I got to the point of looking for jobs when I realized: a) I hate driving and the City of Angels may as well be called the City of Freeways, b) apart from one friend, it was further away from my other loved ones than I wanted to be, and c) falling-out or no, I friggin' love Chicago.  It's home to me.

And let's face it, L.A. is weird.  It's gorgeous and ugly at the same time.  Because people are used to perfect weather, they freak out when it rains (whereas in the Midwest, that's called "Tuesday").  And this extends into their lives: Angelenos expect everything to be as flawless as the weather, whereas Midwesterners get on with it.  Snowing ten inches?  You still have to go to work, so put on your boots and suck it up.

This weekend I saw Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, which reminded me why staying in Chicago was a very good decision.

The movie opens with the main character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, who never did it for me before this movie, but DAMN), circling around and around in his black Ferrari.  Noise and movement aplenty, but ultimately he's going nowhere.  Some might argue the symbolism is heavy handed, but I thought it was a great introduction into Johnny's life.

The guy is a major movie star, yet he lives at the Chateau Marmont hotel.  He smokes, drinks and parties, but even when there are pole-dancing twins in the room--who Johnny seems to keep on retainer--he's forever alone.  And what's crazy is how people kowtow to him: assistants, publicists, actors who want a piece of what he's got.  He wants for nothing, but he lacks everything that's important.

Enter Cleo (Elle Fanning, Dakota's kid sister), Johnny's eleven-year-old daughter.  She lives in the same city, but he's so emotionally distant from her he doesn't know she's been ice skating for three years.  We assume Cleo's mother has been the primary caretaker, but she seems to be about as stable an influence as absentee Johnny.  Case in point: Johnny receives a phone call from Cleo's mother, who says she's "going away for a while," and Cleo is in his care for the several days before she departs for camp.

You might be thinking this is a Three Men and a Baby scenario.  Think again.  There are virtually no problems.  Cleo's a lovely kid: she reads her book during press conferences; when tagging along to Milan with her dad, she's just thrilled with their private swimming pool; and she can make eggs Benedict.  What's sad is, you get the sense this isn't Cleo's best behavior.  Rather, she's probably like this all the time, being good for both parents, knowing exactly when she needs to disappear, never asking too much.

Because he only has her for a few days, Johnny doesn't really learn how to be a good dad.  He doesn't have to.  And Cleo doesn't ask that of him.  Probably because she knows he can't be.

I loved Somewhere for many reasons: cliches that turn out not to be, a portrait of a movie star who doesn't make tabloid waves but is messed up in deeper ways, a child I came to care about and worry for. No child is perfect, but Cleo is sweet and smart, and Johnny could probably be a decent father if he tried.  By the end, I really hoped he would try.

Keep in mind this is a Sofia Coppola movie.  All her trademarks are there: long camera shots, characters contemplatively staring out windows, moody music, usually some example of foreign pop culture weirdness.  And unless it stars Bill Murray, you can't watch a Sofia Coppola movie for its dialogue, because it will be sparse and sound like real people talking.

But all this works for me.  I like how Coppola can tell a story with only a few words and lots of pictures.  How by the film's end, she had me rooting for her two main characters, hoping Cleo would ask for the love she deserved and Johnny would realize he had to snap out of his L.A. coma and step it up as a parent.  How well she casts her players, especially Elle Fanning, whose goofy smiles and intermittent skipping were so perfectly eleven years old.  How with every shot or word, I know how she wants me to feel--and rather than get angry at the manipulation, I feel it.

The more I think about Somewhere, the more I love it.  Yeah, it's a tale as old as time: money and fame can't buy you happiness and love.  But when illustrated in such an evocative way, even the most tired tropes reveal their truth.

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