With “Somewhere,” writer-director Sofia Coppola may have made the best movie opening of the year. The goodness of the rest of the film will be subject to debate, as per usual with Coppola, but its beginning — a delicate thing, and therefore better discovered than discussed — couldn’t be better. It’s the perfectly correct, simply cinematic, literally character-driven overture to the movie at hand. It may also drive unreceptive viewers crazy, and even drive them away. Just as it should.
The driving character is Johnny Marco, a movie actor whose success has burned him out. However apparently comfortable Johnny might seem to be in his own skin, he’s also a man with angst so ingrained that he doesn’t even realize he’s having an existential crisis.
Johnny’s between projects just now, although occasionally saddled with the duties of promoting past efforts. He often loses track of what day of the week it is. He passes time dozing in his hotel room in front of twin strippers doing dual private pole dances. He’s had a relationship with one of them, but still can’t tell them apart. When driving around in the Los Angeles sprawl, Johnny always wonders if he’s being followed. He gets random text messages containing obscene, accusing, open-ended questions. Their senders never are identified. Maybe they’re all from a nagging voice in his head.
It’s a pleasure and maybe a relief to see how gracefully Coppola navigates the perpetually crowded playing field of insider Hollywood satire. “Somewhere” makes good use of her spartan, gently ironic aesthetic, wisely acknowledging that in this milieu the satire will take care of itself, if one just waits long enough. Here, a lack of inflection seems like the right choice, possibly the only choice.
And there’s an inherent rightness in the casting, too. Dorff’s been in the game for a while himself, and not without success, but he still registers more as a familiar face than a household name. It works to his and the movie’s advantage that he can seem to resemble other, variously respectable marquee headliners — Ewan McGregor, Mark Wahlberg, even Jean-Claude Van Damme — or nobody at all.
Women appear in the nooks and crannies of Johnny’s life, often leveling wordless gazes on him. Sometimes that leads to sex, but not always. With feeling and skill, as she has before, Coppola limns the ineffability of human connection — in this case, how looks on people’s faces can seem to hover weirdly between lust and reproach.
Anyway, Johnny finds himself preferring the company of his pre-teen daughter Cleo, a promising ice skater and otherwise normal, sensitive kid played by Elle Fanning. Here’s the part where we read the movie as a lens on Coppola’s memory of growing up with her famous film-biz father, Francis. Fine, but “Somewhere”’s moment still is now. Having made a few perimeter-tracing laps around the modern movie industry, it downshifts into being more about the father-daughter rapport. Or, rather, about their rapport in spite of the movie industry. Cleo may not quite fathom the growing emptiness in her father’s life, but she has an instinct to want to fill it. And — credit Fanning’s easygoing performance — she seems to understand that at least one of them may have some reluctant growing up to do.
For all its gumption and relaxed confidence, “Somewhere,” right from the start, might come across as just an assembly of fine touches. And yes, people might say the same of Coppola’s whole career. But that can’t negate a rare knack for good beginnings, nor make those other touches any less fine.