Lost In Translation is easily one of my favorite movies. Sofia Coppola’s break-out, award-winning turn at writing and directing produced such a touching and exquisitely-filmed movie that I doubt I was alone in my desire to see more.
That “more” came in 2010’s Somewhere, which stars Stephen (A Vampire When Vampires Didn’t Sparkle) Dorff as Johnny Marco, and Elle (For The Last Time, I’m Not Dakota) Fanning as his daughter Cleo.
Somewhere begins…nowhere. We see the curve of a road, and the hum of an engine. After a few moments, a black Ferrari speeds by, disappears from the screen for a moment as it rounds a corner, then zooms to the other side of the screen and vanishes again. The car does this five times over about two or three minutes before it finally slows, and Dorff steps out. Smash cut to black, and the title screen. Thus, the first blunder of the film, and we’re not even past the opening credits. But I’ll get back to that later.
Dorff’s Johnny, as we find out over the course of the next few minutes, is a Hollywood star of some renown, and has let his appetites get the best of him. He drunkenly falls down the stairs and breaks his hand, and then is seen later in a cast, groggily watching twin exotic dancers do a routine in his bedroom before he drifts off to sleep. The next morning at breakfast, we see Johnny get the first of several insulting texts from a private number, and watch as he tails a hot woman in a convertible to her house. All of which is done with just the barest scraps of dialogue and for that reason it is done brilliantly. We know exactly who this guy is, and he’s barely spoken five words.
Or at least, we think we do. After another performance by the twins and another battle lost to painkillers, Johnny wakes up to find his daughter signing his cast, and the girl’s mother staring at them from the door. It’s his day, and the erstwhile dad takes his daughter to ice skating practice, where he gradually pays less attention to his phone and more to her. It’s charming, but not to last. Cleo goes back to her mother, and Johnny goes back to the bottle and the babes.
At some point during this second wave of “Johnny’s kind of an ass” exposition, the second major blunder occurs, which links right back to the first. During a press junket for one of his movies, a foreign reporter asks the asinine question: “Who is Johnny Marco?” Johnny, predictably, has no answer. Now we know that the opening racing scene was not simply a man driving in circles, but that his life is going in circles too. Cute, but jarring.
The beauty of Lost in Translation and parts of Somewhere was the sense that these were real people living in the real world. Through gorgeous cinematography and languid pacing, Coppola’s films make you feel like you are there. It’s not always exciting, but life is generally not exciting, and thus the kernel of authenticity. The “Who is Johnny Marco?” line yanked me right out of the experience, and it was hard to take Somewhere seriously after that misstep.
Johnny ends up getting Cleo dumped on him for an indefinite amount of time, and the two start to bond in a manner that’s almost a carbon-copy of the delicate relationship at the heart of Lost in Translation. A mismatched couple thrown together, a few sleepless nights, dealing with foreigners (they take a brief trip to Italy), a lot of indoor pools, the perils and pratfalls of stardom, and a growing sense of purposelessness bordering on depression. Wes Anderson might even balk at how many motifs Coppola recycles for Somewhere.
But when Cleo goes off to camp and Johnny realizes just how empty his life is without her, Somewhere finally deviates from the Translation formula, but in a completely abrupt, bizarre, and irresponsible way. (Yes, I am going to spoil it for you, so turn away if you must.) There will be no stolen kiss and whispered promise here. No, Johnny simply drives his beloved Ferrari out to the middle of nowhere, parks it by the side of the road, and starts walking. Smash cut to credits.
Both films ended ambiguously, but Translation was at least a hopeful uncertainty. Somewhere‘s verges on the macabre. Before going to camp, Cleo expresses a fear that her mother has abandoned her, and now here Johnny is – after a miniature nervous breakdown – ditching his car and going off to do who-knows-what. Giving Coppola the benefit of the doubt, I can try and assume that this ending is a matching bookend to the going-in-circles metaphorical beginning and not to be taken entirely literally. But again, it’s hard to marry what is largely a very real film to that kind of high-minded symbolism.
And we never do find out who’d been sending him those insulting texts…