A world-famous world-weary actor finds himself adrift in a luxury hotel suite, bored, rootless, alone, alternately pampered and imposed upon because of his fame. There are wacky foreigners involved. He bonds with a much younger girl, also adrift. They have fun and enjoy a few mundane adventures, but don't really talk about anything of substance. Their relationship is chaste, though she is attached enough to work up a serious stink-eye over an impromptu bedmate he scares up. Certain unspoken understandings seem right there at the surface, though, and as they part a mumbled confession sort of, but doesn't quite, clear things up for everybody. And, believe it or not, this is not a description of Lost in Translation.
It is a testament to Sofia Coppola's considerable talents as a filmmaker that the abundant parallels between her 2003 breakout film and her latest, the wry, elliptical Somewhere, aren't glaring from the start. Indeed, Somewhere has a very different feel from any of its predecessors; for one thing, it's her first film focusing on a male protagonist. Coppola introduces international movie star Johnny Marco (erstwhile international movie star Stephen Dorff) racing his black Ferrari around a track. But the camera doesn't follow the car, and there are no slick editing-room maneuvers. Coppola frames a section of asphalt and simply catches the car as it flashes by on each lap, the sound of its revving and downshifting engine filling in its offscreen parabola between appearances. This is the approach she takes throughout: long static takes with a minimum of soundtrack cues or other enhancements, making a point of the kind of emptiness that most filmmakers work hard to avoid. And, of course, that approach only emphasizes that Johnny's driving on a closed track, circling at high speed and yet going nowhere.
Most of the rest of the film plies a similarly subtle but not ambiguous course, though it isn't exactly the arthouse effort that such a description may conjure. After all, Johnny's not a tortured artist. He's kind of the opposite of tortured. He's so rich that money is invisible in his world, a seamless web of people catering to his needs. Demands on his time are minimal. He doesn't hurt for company, as beautiful women throw themselves at him so readily that not only does he not know their names, they seem not to expect him to. Which is not to say he's happy. He doesn't seem to know how to be. He sleeps. He smokes and drinks beer. He appears to have no hobbies, no curiosities. He has an old friend (Jackass' Chris Pontius), but no current ones. When left to his own devices, he calls in vacant blonde twin strippers with portable poles like some people order up a movie On Demand, scenes that encapsulate much of what's wrong with sex in America in the 21st century so far.
So Johnny's life isn't exactly unenviable, but it is fairly lonely and depressing. And then his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for an indeterminate stay. It's a gambit right out of a bad romcom, but Coppola maintains the film's even keel and observer's distance. Forced together in close proximity for more than a visitation day or two, possibly for the first time in their lives, Johnny and Cleo manage to avoid both overly cutesy bonding montages and big revelations. He attempts to be a good parent in his highly distractable fashion (e.g., room service). She proves herself more together than he is in many ways (e.g., eggs Benedict with hand-cut chives). Coppola patiently builds the case that some change has transpired, never breaking the film's deadpan until the final reel.
Maybe it's that final reel that makes the comparisons between Lost in Translation and Somewhere really jump out. Lost ends with the two main characters parting, satisfied with having limned an interlude and sketched out its future impact. If Somewhere had stopped there, it might seem like a respectable variation on the theme, a creative retracing of steps, consciously or otherwise. But Coppola sticks with Johnny for a little while. Dorff's respectably nuanced performance has a hard time selling some of what happens next, maybe because it seems so much less nuanced than the prior 80-odd minutes, a half-hearted attempt at a Hollywood ending in a non-Hollywood film, albeit one set in Hollywood. Those looking for further evidence of Coppola's gifts as a filmmaker will find plenty in Somewhere's many charming bits and finely observed moments, but Lost in Translation it is not.