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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sofia?

Sofia Coppola
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Sharp debate erupts over Sofia Coppola's Somewhere -- Oscar worthy, or a scary error that will turn her into Stanley Kubrick?

Coppola's minimalist film about a burnt-out star (Stephen Dorff) rescued from a Chateau Marmont vice by his daughter (Elle Fanning) copped Best Picture at Venice and awards from Elle and National Board of Review. Nobody doubts its gorgeous highwire daring -- it's evidently too artily European for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (no Globe nom), and they're in the film. But pundit Jeff Wells fears she's "succumbing to Kubrickism" -- a "hermetic, hidden-away life." Anne Thompson admires Somewhere, but says she's stuck in the "Safety Zone" that stifled James L. Brooks, John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch.

But Somewhere is about a star's hermetic life, and Jarmuschness is why this is the second-most-retweeted post on Ira Deutchman's Movietweeviews.com: "Sofia channels her inner Jarmusch in Entourage territory. Not a knock. It's austere, beautiful and surprisingly moving."

Thompson thinks Coppola shouldn't have snubbed Scott Rudin's project pitch (and other producers', says Wells). "She needs to open up to other collaborators and voices." Maybe her incredible shrinking scripts indicate she's ready. At December's DGA screening, she said, “For me, writing is the hardest part. I understand why a lot of writers are alcoholics. They’re alone like thinking, is this any good? That’s probably why my scripts are on the shorter side, because I just want to get it over with. Shooting is the most exciting, because you’re all getting together making what you were picturing. Just that energy. I guess I probably enjoy the editing process most, because you have all the elements you’re putting together and to me it’s like making a photo album or collage, you try it in different ways and see what fits.”

The New Yorker's film blogger Richard Brody doubts she needs rescue from a Kubrick cliff of etiolated auteurism. "I don't think it's any more personal than Shutter Island, Greenberg (also shot by Harris Savides), The Social Network, or Black Swan. It's more radical, though. In any case, I do love it, and I wouldn't dare tell Sofia Coppola what to do next; so far, she has made great choices." Regarding Thompson's urging Coppola to return calls like Rudin's, Brody says, "I don't know, I wouldn't have been the one to tell John Ford to lay off the Westerns for a while or Douglas Sirk to stop with the melodramas."

Also, Somewhere is a reaction to the bloat (and flop) of Marie Antoinette. "It got me excited about the idea of making something really simple," Coppola said. "[Savides and I] talked about how much we hated doing coverage. And how that was like doing an algebra problem?" (In her memoir, Eleanor Coppola says Sofia was bad at math and chemistry.) "That wasn’t the most fun part about it. It was about how simply we could tell the story.”

So maybe next she'll complicate her storytelling. But I hope she phones Rudin back.

And I hail her for nailing the movie that is Chateau Marmont, its luxe hush intermittently interrupted by glamorous misbehavior. I think it's where Dennis Hopper told me the Rebel Without a Cause orgy occurred (Natalie Wood's Dom Perignon bath allegedly caused a rash and a trip to ER), where Tim Curry told me he shared John Lennon's Lost Weekend, and MSN chief film critic Glenn Kenny stumbled upon one of Hollywood's former top five best-paid actors being paid the ultimate compliment by a fan in a dim lobby foyer at 2 a.m. She was blonde, like the twin Playboy poledancers who amuse Dorff's movie star prior to his passing out in a girl's nude lap in Somewhere. (When Francis Ford Coppola visited the set, he asked Sofia's baby-daddy Thomas Mars whether that scene was based on "a story that [she] knew something about.") What Kenny says goes for the moody movie and the actual location: It is "as if it's not a real place at all."

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