In an unspecified desert locale, a black Ferrari repeatedly slices through the nondescriptly framed landscape. It blurs through the foreground and shifts through the off-screen curves, only to return as a background speck before zooming off again ... and again. At some point in the five laps that compose the opening shot of Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, we gather that this aimless repetition is just the first in a series of pointed — and often clumsy — metaphors for the life of its protagonist: Hollywood action-movie icon Johnny Marco, admired in public and alone in private, who spends his days adrift between the margins of daily existence and detached voyeurism of his own celebrity.
Like a sullen emperor imprisoned in a gilded palace, Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) whittles away his stagnant personal life in Hollywood's legendary Chateau Marmont. From his perch above Sunset Boulevard, he fortifies himself with booze, prescriptions and women (sometimes hired) to help blend one hazy, dispassionate day into the next. The unexpected arrival of his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, whose performance is one of the film's few humanizing attributes) seems meant, at first, to cruelly underscore Marco's shortcomings as a human being. Those are typified by his emotionless response to the girl's figure-skating rehearsal — the same zombified reaction he gives a pair of nubile private strippers in the preceding scene.
Marco's relationship to his daughter, however, properly frames Somewhere — not as a damning condemnation of a bad celebrity parent, but as a pictorial exploration of the idea that pictures steal a piece of the soul. Coppola's previous features Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette examined fame as a kind of bubble world that leaves its inhabitants suspended in isolation. Her newest investigates the loss of identity that accompanies the vast reproduction and perception of one's persona. See your own face everywhere often enough, the movie says, and you become abstract even to yourself.
Unfortunately, Coppola's investigation leads to vague, inconclusive results. Somewhere is a film of perpetual observation. Often through the eyes of Cleo (who appears to be at least a partial stand-in for Coppola and her own celebrity-daughter perspective), the movie spends a lot of time simply observing the life of Johnny Marco as he passively observes the life of Johnny Marco. We see him as a stranger at his own party, as he is transformed by an effects crew into an amorphous glob, then an aged corpse. Meanwhile, he is asked a question that's preposterous both as a blockbuster press-junket query and a meta-thematic summary: "Who IS Johnny Marco?"
Alas, it's a question never meant to be answered. Somewhere makes the pervasive mistake plaguing much of contemporary so-called "art cinema" — it assumes emptiness somehow implies significance. The film offers precious, fleeting indications of internal conflict followed by lengthy passages of Antonioni-esque nothingness: insert analysis here, in the absence of fully imagined characters and incidents. Coppola spends much time (and money) making the vain conceit that celebrity is an imperfect lifestyle, then stops short — hoping viewers will assume that somewhere underneath the movie's languid surfaces are broader philosophical and cultural implications.
There aren't, but in searching for them we're distracted from the thinness of the movie's conception. Meaninglessness has become the new meaning. If that metaphorical Ferrari symbolizes anything in Coppola's latest effort, it's probably the movie itself — a sleekly designed, expertly crafted vehicle that is capable of going anywhere, but instead confines itself to a closed loop, treading the same ground over and over again.