By Louis Allred

Somewhere, the new film from Sofia Coppola, opens with a static shot of a deserted road. We see a car driving in long loops, darting in and out of frame. After four or five laps, actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) steps out of the car, addresses an unseen other camera with a simple “OK,” and the scene ends. As a metaphor, someone driving round and round in the same place is a simple one, but it proves apt as the film progresses. And this opening shot, done with a static camera in one take, also serves as a prime example of the tone and style of the film to come.

Somewhere’s story is remarkably simple. Johnny is an actor in the middle of a press junket for his new action film. He currently lives at the infamous Chateau Marmont hotel, where he whiles away his days having parties, getting drunk, hiring strippers, and so forth. His responsibilities to the film are an afterthought; he’s often awoken in the afternoon by his assistant’s calls reminding him of a press conference or photo shoot. In the middle of it all, his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) comes to visit; first on a one-day visitation, then for a few days afterward as her mother drops her off, announcing that she has to leave “for a while.” He includes her in his life, and they have a wonderful time, even jetting to Italy together for some award ceremony.

And that’s really it in terms of the plot, but a film like this is not about the overall story; it’s about the moments within. And Somewhere does quite well with those moments. As with the opening scene, there’s little in the way of dynamic camerawork or editing. Most scenes are static, usually lingering on one shot for the majority of them. It seems like a technique that could get boring rather quickly, but it serves not only Johnny’s malaise and isolation, but also the sheer absurdity of his universe. For example, a scene where he gets tested for special effects makeup for a future movie takes a turn for the bizarre (and funny) when his entire head is slathered in plaster. We have a long take, for at least a minute, where we are focused simply on Johnny’s covered head, only hearing him breathe through his nose holes. It’s one of those scenes that gets funnier the longer the shot goes on.

Given that the movie is about a rich movie star feeling trapped by his success, it would be easy for Somewhere to fall into the realm of douchebaggery. Usually, a story like this is either about how awesome it is to have this life (the height of douchebaggery, see also: “Entourage”) or how horrible it is (a close second on the douchebag scale). But Somewhere manages to avoid both traps through its characterization of Johnny. Neither living it up nor loudly decrying his success, he’s a surrogate for our confusion about what’s going on. He’s as baffled by everything as we are. When he takes his daughter to Italy and they are comped a ridiculously opulent suite, they’re as shocked about it as we are, and proceed to do what we would in that situation: do laps in the private pool and order in a buttload of gelato.

The main cast is small, but very good. Dorff gives one of his better performances as the movie star who barely knows what’s happening in his life, for better or worse. Fanning is charming as Cleo. Her performance is grounded, and she never crosses into overly-cute territory. She’s a great companion for Johnny; she takes care of him and loves him unconditionally, but also knows when he’s up to no good. Michelle Monaghan cameos in one scene as Johnny’s co-star (and other half to a brief affair that apparently ended badly). And Ellie Kemper shows up in another scene as the archetypal perky assistant for Johnny’s press conference.

Chris Pontius also stars in the film, and if you had gone back in time and told me that Party Boy from Jackass would steal almost every scene he had in a Sofia Coppola film, I’d think you were crazy. But he does as Johnny’s childhood best friend, Sammy. The bulk of his scene-stealing comes in his (almost certainly improvised) conversations with Cleo, playing the role of goofy uncle, talking about reading Johnny’s sister’s diary and making jokes about Martina Navratilova. (It makes sense in context.)

This is not to say the film lacks drama; Johnny’s emptiness is evident throughout. Where he should be living it up at a party like everyone else, he wanders around by himself. He’s constantly harassed by insulting text messages from an unknown number. And at times, his hard-partying life intrudes on his relationship with Cleo. But like the humor, the drama is also underplayed. There are no maudlin scenes of redemption and hugging; it’s all very low-key.

Given that I was not much of a fan of Lost in Translation, and that Somewhere mined similar material, I was initially hesitant about the film. But it’s surprisingly light; you might even call it “cute.” The pace is slow, but that’s par for the course with Coppola; it works for the story. Dorff is surprisingly sympathetic, Fanning is great as expected, and even Pontius holds his own. I can’t say it’s one of the best films of the year, but it’s entertaining, and funnier than you’d expect.

Besides, any film with twin-sister pole dancers at least deserves a look.