Films of the week
Somewhere (15) 3/5, The Tourist (12A) 2/5
Lost in La La land
Friday 10 December 2010
Ennui has seldom looked more stylish than it does in Sofia Coppola's latest. Like Lost in Translation (her best film), Somewhere is a mood piece about an actor trying to get a grip on a life that's drifting away in a blur of room service, prescription drugs and promotional duties. Stephen Dorff plays a good-looking, sleepy-eyed star named Johnny Marco, resident in Hollywood's favourite hangout Chateau Marmont. Johnny's lost, and he's just bright enough to know it. When he's not partying or being entertained by twin pole dancers in his bedroom, he drives his Ferrari round and round a local track: only a gerbil on a wheel could be a more obvious metaphor of "going nowhere".
Johnny's world of hookers and hangers-on is breached when 11-year-old Cleo (Elle Fanning), his daughter from a failed marriage, shows up at the hotel. She is sweet-faced, open and, to her father, unnervingly innocent. The first thing he does is take her ice-skating, and watching her go through her twirls on the rink we wonder how Johnny feels: this girl isn't much younger than those pole dancers the night before. Coppola, whose fascination with the father-daughter dynamic was evident from her debut film, The Virgin Suicides (1999), has personal form here, having spent a peripatetic childhood in the company of her own sire, Francis Ford. She understands how the protective instinct flows both ways – Cleo does a nice line in quietly appalled looks whenever Johnny's latest squeeze appears – and also why the cocoon of hotel life isn't necessarily conducive to happiness. When Johnny has to fly to Milan to pick up some D-list award, he takes Cleo with him, and despite the Hotel Principe di Savoia's cossetting – a pool in their suite! – they cling to one another for comfort, much as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson did around the impersonal glitter of Tokyo.
There is so much drama these days, in film and TV, about the vacuous nature of success that Johnny's woes need a little more background and nuance not to seem generic. Dorff, however, is no Bill Murray, and Somewhere, though characteristically languid and understated, lacks the sly drollery of Lost in Translation. Coppola watches Johnny going through the motions – phonecalls from his agent, press junkets, driving his car around LA – so intently that you'd imagine he has something quite momentous on his mind. But whereas Murray's blank face spoke of an infinite sadness, Dorff's conveys only the boredom of the more or less empty-headed. And, in consequence, the movie is often in danger of seeming empty-headed, too. On the plus side Coppola brings a photographer's eye to her framing and compositional sense, and she rejoices in the girlish loveliness of Elle Fanning, whether playing Guitar Hero in front of the TV or dressed up in her premiere ballgown.
But a movie, however elegant, also needs to move; this one allows itself too much leave to dawdle. A thin outline of a plot dribbles through it as Johnny receives texts from a crank caller, echoing the troubles of another lost John, in Martin Amis's Money. Needless to say, it comes to nothing. Even romance gets short shrift: Johnny's co-star on his latest film is played by Michelle Monaghan, an interesting actress promisingly listed fourth on the credits. Her total number of scenes? One. Therewill always be room for a quiet, contemplative, beautifully composed movie about emotional dislocation, and Sofia Coppola has proven herself a talented exponent of the type. She knows the value of Less is More. Sadly, Somewhere tips the balance to where Less actually means less.
Another fancy Italian hotel – the Danieli in Venice – is heavily featured in The Tourist, a "wrong man" comedy thriller with two big above-the-title names. Angelina Jolie plays cool English beauty Elise, pursued by Scotland Yard and Interpol on the conviction that she will lead them to her amour Alexander Pearce, a master thief wanted for a billion-dollar job. On a train from Paris to Venice she befriends an American college teacher, Frank (Johnny Depp), a widower on a solo vacation, and once in Venice she installs him in her super de luxe suite overlooking the Canal. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be remarkable – two gorgeous Hollywood stars falling for each other – but Depp's Frank is supposedly bumbling and apologetic, sort of Hugh Grant with a goatee. He even wears English-gent pyjamas as he bunks down, chastely, on Elise's couch.
In the way of such capers the police mistake Frank for the master thief himself, and so too does gangster Steven Berkoff, whose money Pearce stole. For a comedy-thriller Berkoff's villain oversteps the mark, using a tailor's tape measure to garrotte one of his own goons for bungling Frank's kidnap. Hilarious. But then in tone and character development The Tourist is all over the place, possibly due to its very different trio of creators: the script is by Christopher McQuarrie (who does violent American like The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (who does non-violent British like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey), while the director is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose first film was the heartstopping Stasi drama The Lives of Others.
What a comedown this is, for all three. The Tourist is as fake as the ersatz cigarette Depp smokes, and its attempt to bottle the spirit of old-school romance – think Grant and Hepburn in Charade – fails utterly. You need a few good jokes, for one thing, and your stars to be on top of their game. While Angelina Jolie may have the most luscious lips in cinema, hers is really the kiss of death: in the last 10 years I can think of only one movie she has made (A Mighty Heart) that didn't stink. If she could just walk instead of sashaying it would be a start. Depp can do light comedy, but he can't do it disguised as an ordinary guy who teaches maths (please!), and quails before beautiful women. They really should have got Hugh Grant – and that's not a sentence I ever expected to write.
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