Somewhere -- Film Review

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Sofia Coppola makes a charming return to small-scale storytelling.

After her foray into historical costumers with "Marie Antoinette," Sofia Coppola makes a happy return to "Lost in Translation" territory in the cutback charmer "Somewhere," which illuminates the emptiness of a movie star's life in Los Angeles through close observation and gentle irony.

Despite its subject, Coppola seems to be exercising more of her European than American sensibility in the small-scale intimacy of this portrait. Lacking the stars of Translation, it might not go quite as far with audiences but still can count on a strong critical push.

Again shooting from her own original screenplay, Coppola stays close to the details and innuendoes of the story, making every shot count. With lots of fixed-frame shots and occasionally playing out scenes in real time, the film has a relaxed indie rhythm and laid-back style that mimics the way young Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) coasts through life.

He is introduced in a daringly long, monotonous opening shot as he drives his noisy Ferrari in circles on an empty track in the desert. The meaninglessness of this activity, from which he emerges a little dazed, is typical of everything he does: falling down the stairs high and breaking an arm, having sex with a stream of interchangeable blondes, living on a diet of beer and cigarettes, constant parties and more girls.

With sardonic humor, sex is shown as putting Johnny to sleep or as a quick, meaningless physical workout. His venomous ex-girlfriends think he's a shallow jerk. But Johnny, in Dorff's easygoing, slightly anonymous interpretation, actually is a nice guy. He doesn't even realize how lost he is until his ex-wife leaves town and forces him to spend several days in the company of his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). Although he never has developed any fathering skills, Johnny manages to show her a good time on a trip to Milan for the Telegatto Awards, a send-up of Italian TV glitz. He still wakes up with a blonde in his bed (Italo starlet Laura Chiatti on this occasion), raising Cleo's eyebrows, but the foreign country brings them closer.

Much of what works in Somewhere is subtle and glancing, like the unemphasized comparison of fresh, natural Cleo to Johnny's jaded lovers. In two delightful scenes, repeated perhaps to show the unimaginative nature of his sexual fantasies, pole-dancing twins (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) appear in his hotel room performing to disco tunes. Not long afterward, Cleo performs an ice-skating routine to music in an equally succinct costume as her father looks on admiringly.

Johnny's stumbling effort to assume a father's role with Cleo is the first step to breaking out of his celebrity torpor. Scene by scene, a bond builds between them, eventually bringing Johnny to the Big Question, first posed at a farcical news conference: Who is he? An upbeat final scene gives hope he's looking for an answer.

Dorff has the body and looks to play the hunky star as well as the humility to erase most traces of personality for the bland role, which sometimes requires just smoking a cigarette from start to finish. Young Fanning, who already is a veteran actress, gives Cleo poise and lots of skills -- cooking, skating -- that help mask her emotional fragility. In the part of Johnny's longtime buddy, Chris Pontius (Jackass) has the naturalness with Cleo he badly lacks.

Los Angeles is Somewhere's"Tokyo, and the city plays a principal role in the film. The iconic Chateau Marmont, with its singing waiter Romolo and duplex suites, plays a major part as Johnny's impersonal home and refuge. L.A.'s interminable roads and freeways also figure prominently, accompanied by the roar of the Ferrari, imprisoned in traffic and always driving placidly down the middle lane.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales Agent: Focus Features International
Production: American Zoetrope, Pathe, Medusa Film, Tohokushinsha Film Corp
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Kristina Shannon, Karissa Shannon, Laura Chiatti
Director-screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
Executive producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Rassam, Fred Roos. Producers: G. Mac Brown, Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Production designer: Anne Ross
Music: Phoenix
Costumes: Stacey Battat
Editor: Sarah Flack
No rating, 98 minutes