“Who is Johnny Marco?”
Los Angeles is where people go to get famous, a glittery illusion built in a barren desert, a place that promises a charmed life but delivers it to only a few. It’s a city divided into those who perform and those who serve the performers, and one of those groups is disproportionately larger than the other. The American Dream is to be the celebrity, to be the name on people’s lips, to be the hidden talent who is found and adored. The exclusivity of that Los Angeles phenomenon—and the loneliness inherent within it—is the focus of writer-director Sofia Coppola’s only male-centered film, Somewhere.
Coppola is known for her analyses of female experiences, the way she considers feminine yearning. The desire to be free, in The Virgin Suicides. The desire to be heard, in Lost in Translation. The desire to be loved, in Marie Antoinette. The desire to belong, in The Beguiled. The desire to be seen, in The Bling Ring, the true story of a group of adolescent burglars breaking into reality stars’ and celebrities’ Los Angeles homes, stealing their possessions, and showing them off on social media. Those teenagers wanted to be noticed, wanted to be lusted after, wanted to believe that their mimicry of wealth could pass for the real thing. Think of Emma Watson licking her glossy lips on the dance floor in The Bling Ring: “I know how I look,” she seems to be saying, “and I want you to know, too.”
The star in Somewhere has everything those kids covet: attention, money, an array of sexual delights. But Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) lives his life in a barely functioning daze. He spends entire days sitting at a café smoking cigarettes or drinking beer, or inside his home smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t work out, he doesn’t have hobbies, he doesn’t even plan the parties held in his own home. Everyone around him serves him. Every woman around him aims to please him. And yet the myriad delights of Los Angeles no longer sustain him. “You’re gonna be OK,” his ex-wife tells him when he calls her in tears. But Johnny hasn’t been OK for a long time.
Somewhere opens with a seemingly meaningless act: Johnny Marco, movie star, driving his black Ferrari around a dusty racetrack on an overcast day. The only movement is Johnny’s car, zooming around the track once, twice, thrice. There is a tedium to this, but a rhythm, too, the deep vroom of the Ferrari sinking deep into your bones. Silence and nothingness, and then the sound of the car, and then the vision of it, appearing in the frame for a split-second before it turns left. All that movement to never go anywhere. All that effort to essentially stay in place.
When Johnny gets out of the car in his customary uniform of brown boots, jeans, a white T-shirt, and sunglasses, it’s impossible to read his expression. Excited? Pleased? Fulfilled? He is a cypher, a rake, an attractive man aware of his own attractiveness and also aware that most people in his Los Angeles bubble are interested in little else. He rarely needs to talk; others fill in conversations for him. He runs into other celebrities, but they already know what it’s like to be famous; there’s nothing to discuss. In an elevator, Johnny stands next to Benicio del Toro while the other actor disguises himself under a trucker hat emblazoned with the word CALIFORNIA across it, and they make only polite small talk with each other. That declarative CALIFORNIA says it all: These men embody what it means to make it, to live the American Dream, in a place fetishized and glorified for centuries. Their existence already speaks volumes.
His childhood best friend Sammy (Chris Pontius, from Jackass) is a willing wingman, a motormouth who makes up for Johnny’s silence, a constant presence at Johnny’s home in the Chateau Marmont, an LA institution. It’s often women who approach Johnny, recognizing him at restaurants or on his balcony or at a party. Every day, Johnny follows the same routine: wake up to a call from his agent Marge (Amanda Anka), eat a meal prepared for him by Chateau Marmont staff, fulfill some press obligation of which he has to be reminded, and drive around Los Angeles. The Ferrari is his only means of seeing the city and the only possession he seems to care about. The hours he spends driving it are the only time he is actually in control.
Because outside of that car, Johnny is a reactive figure, not a proactive one. His bathroom counter is littered with prescription bottles, including one for hair loss. His bedside table has an open bottle of wine, an empty bottle of beer, a half-drunk glass of whisky, and some books he’s never opened. A pair of twins, Bambi (Kristina Shannon) and Cindy (Karissa Shannon), visit his room with portable stripper poles to dance for him. Whether they’re twerking to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in candy-striper outfits or to Amerie’s “1 Thing” in two-piece tennis getups, Johnny’s expression remains the same: bemusement and polite interest until it’s time for them to have sex.
When a woman across the hall invites him over for a cigarette, he agrees. An employee at an Italian hotel knocks on his door in the middle of the night; he lets her in. The names of these women don’t matter. Johnny can barely tell them apart, doesn’t know if they’re named Shania or Shannon, can’t exactly remember the sexual encounters they had. His frustration when he realizes he followed a woman not to a rendezvous location but to her gated home, where she doesn’t let him in, is a glimmer of the fawning treatment he’s come to expect. This is sex addiction and this might be abuse, but pretty faces aren’t infrequent in Los Angeles, and meaningless sex isn’t infrequent for Johnny. “Kiss me, kiss me…kiss me, please,” he asks a woman during a drunken hookup before passing out between her legs while performing oral sex. A moment of desperation before acquiescing into oblivion—which is what Johnny wanted all along.
The only person who questions Johnny on any of this is the one he sees the least: His 11-year-old daughter Chloe (Elle Fanning), whose bright sundresses and cheery smile represent the promise of California just as much as del Toro’s hat. Johnny’s world is a mélange of drab tones—the washed-out blues of the inside of the Chateau Marmont, the browns and greys of his furniture, the monochromatic monotony of his outfits—and Chloe is the jolt needed to liven things up.
She arrives as a surprise, crawling into Johnny’s bed to examine a cast on his left arm and sign it. Later on, Johnny’s cast will be covered with women’s names and lipstick kisses, but Chloe was there first. Her presence slowly but noticeably begins to reveal not only the shortcomings of Johnny’s lifestyle, but the profound ache of it, the relentless self-destruction. He doesn’t know any of her interests or abilities; it’s Sammy who poses questions about her activities and her friends. Johnny is shocked when Chloe easily puts together mac and cheese from scratch and poaches eggs for Eggs Benedict, but he doesn’t ask how she learned how to cook. They speak around each other, not to each other. Johnny can put aside some of his own selfishness to be a presence in her life, but not all of it.
When Johnny accompanies Chloe to an ice-skating practice, Coppola tracks most of her routine, set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool,” in one continuous shot. As Stefani sings “It’s hard to remember how it felt before,” Johnny puts down his phone and focuses on his daughter; we adopt his perspective through Coppola’s lens, seeing the sparkles on Chloe’s leotard, the sweat on her brow, and the smile she breaks into when she realizes Johnny has actually been paying attention. But as quickly as the pride swells in Chloe, it disappears when Johnny asks how long she’s been ice-skating, when he doesn’t realize she’s already devoted three years of her life to the sport. His “Really?” is a wound. And Chloe counters that with her own dismissal of Johnny’s fears: On the drive home, he’s concerned about a black SUV tracking them, convinced that it’s paparazzi. Chloe’s nonchalant “There’s kind of a lot of those in LA” is a non-cynical shrug in the face of his paranoia.
That’s how it goes with Johnny and Chloe: as she moves a little bit closer, he literally and figuratively opens the door of Chateau Marmont’s Room 59 to let her in, but only incrementally. The person that Los Angeles has trained him to be is incompatible with being a father, for caring for anyone but himself.
What changes this dynamic is a trip to Italy that underscores both the silo of fame in which Johnny lives and the way it is actively hurting his daughter. Far away from the cocoon of Los Angeles, Johnny is still a recognizable figure—airport employees ask him for pictures, hotel employees are unsurprised by a late-night gelato order—but it’s the first time he allows himself to be truly seen by Chloe. The morning after a one-night stand, Johnny’s sexual partner chats away on her cellphone in a fluffy robe, picking at a breakfast platter. She says nothing to Chloe; Chloe says nothing to her. When Johnny arrives at the table, Chloe says nothing to her father, either, but the way she looks at him is clear in a way it hasn’t been before. She knows that he invited a woman into their room after she fell asleep. She knows that he didn’t think enough about her to ask the woman to leave.
The way Coppola positions this altercation equalizes Johnny’s and Chloe’s points of view so the frame is full of each of them, no space left for anything else. And that moment—Chloe’s knowledge of who her father is—sparks in Johnny a sort of self-reflection that he hasn’t experienced in a long time, if ever. For weeks, Johnny has been receiving mysterious text messages from a private cellphone number: “Why are you such an asshole?” “You think you’re such hot shit, don’t you?” “What’s your fucking problem?” He’s read each one, but never deleted them. Johnny knows who he is. And now Chloe knows, too.
Father and daughter leave Italy early to return to Los Angeles, and when they’re back, The Strokes’ “I’ll Try Anything Once” guides their final day together. “Why not try it all/If you only remember it once?” the song wonders, and that sense of fleeting joy is what permeates the day: a ping-pong match, an underwater tea party, time spent sunbathing together. All these ethereal, buoyant, sundrenched moments to make up for lost time. For the first time in the film, Johnny asks Chloe how she feels, wonders why she likes the Twilight books so much, and admits to her his guilt over her childhood. But even then, his honesty can’t be expressed in Los Angeles, the city that enables him. His teary-eyed apology to his daughter, his “I’m sorry I haven’t been around,” is set to the whacking blades of a helicopter, so loud that Cleo can’t hear it, at a spot in the middle of nowhere before a taxi takes Chloe to camp. Not in the celebrity playground of the Chateau Marmont, nor in his Ferrari, Johnny’s most obnoxious indicator of wealth and status. But in a grimy strip of land with no one else around, as far away from the glitz and glitter as Johnny can get.
“You’re always gone,” Chloe said to him earlier during their final day together, and her accusation becomes Johnny’s salvation. When you have everything you’ve ever wanted, when all of that excess has hollowed you out, when nothing seems to fulfill you, what else is there to do but disappear? Johnny has lived the American Dream, and the final echelon of such success is to become more than it, to no longer need it. The only choice is to leave Los Angeles. “We were looking for adventure,” Sammy had told Chloe of his and her father’s childhood one afternoon the Chateau Marmont, but the only adventure Johnny has left is to find himself.
Earlier in Somewhere, Johnny’s greatest moment of peace comes as he sits in a chair with his head covered in plaster and gauze, waiting for a special-effects team to make a mold of his face. In that empty room, everything is silent and still. His face hidden, his identity camouflaged, his essence erased. The process of copying who Johnny is demonstrates his blankness underneath, and it’s that moment that comes to mind when Johnny finally admits to Chloe’s mother, “I’m fucking nothing. I’m not even a person.” With Chloe gone—the only person who saw Johnny for something outside of his fame—does he even exist? Does he want to?
The final moments of Somewhere move outside of Los Angeles, extracting Johnny from a city that no longer appeals to him. “I’m gonna be checking out,” he tells the Chateau Marmont concierge after a series of lonely days and nights, his room feeling smaller in Chloe’s absence. As Johnny leaves town, Coppola removes us from inside his Ferrari and instead follows behind it, trailing Johnny on U.S. Route 101 as he goes in search of a void. Past the clogged California traffic, past roads lined with lush trees, to a stretch of desert road that evokes both his rush toward nowhere in the opening of the film and his sincere admission to Chloe. Johnny pulls the car over, Johnny gets out of the Ferrari, Johnny walks away, and Johnny smiles. His victory is in abandoning the person Los Angeles made him, and his fulfillment of the American Dream is in leaving it behind.