" Failure is not quite so frightening as regret "
The Dish

MRQE Top Critic

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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Pity the poor rich movie star who finds his life of Ferraris, private helicopters, and sex with starlets unfulfilling. In this recession, if you think you have it bad, just try to put yourself in Johnny Marco’s shoes.

I don’t think that’s quite the sentiment writer/director Sofia Coppola was going for — more likely she was saying that the glamorous life of actors isn’t as glamorous as we might imagine. But it’s hard to feel sorry for someone with the kind of success most people only dream of.

Life with Daughter

Cleo often seems more mature than her father
Cleo often seems more mature than her father

Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, who lives in the Chateau Marmont, a long-term hotel in L.A. His neighbors are all celebrities — actors like him, models, musicians. He has his regular pole dancers come to his room — twins. The first time we witness it he falls asleep during the act, probably from the alcohol and/or pills on his nightstand. He works as an actor, and he has success, but somehow it doesn’t fulfill him. You might say he’s going around in circles — and in fact that’s the opening shot of the film — Johnny driving an expensive sports car around in circles, going nowhere.

He has custody of his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) on odd weekends, but he gets a call one day from his ex-wife. She’s leaving for an unknown time, and she needs Johnny to keep Cleo for a while. Johnny takes her to Italy with him. He has her move in with him. His brother comes to help. A good time is had by all. Then it’s back to L.A. for a few days until summer camp begins. Coppola doesn’t oversell the benefits of spending time with one’s daughter. But she doesn’t have to. It’s clear that the change from drugs and strippers to ice cream and children are good for the soul.

The symmetrical ending sees Johnny and Cleo parting again, but at least now Johnny realizes how happy he’s been to have her near him. When she goes to camp, he’s back to being alone, the same as before, but at least he knows the answer to his problems.

An Actor’s Life

Coppola has a good eye for detail. Her own life as the daughter of a Hollywood maven no doubt provided some of the material, but the attention to emotional details is a skill that serves her well.

Start with the scenes of Johnny at work. He sits there for 40 minutes with gunk on your face and only 2 air holes for your nostrils. He smiles for a camera and stands on a riser to make him look more like a man than he really is. He answers inane and absurd questions from the press, while maintaining his sense of grace. Yet somehow that grace doesn’t seem fake. Dorff’s Johnny really seems like someone who is naturally cut out for the job of selling charisma.

On the other hand, Coppola seems to say it is pretty fake — or at least pretty shallow. Take for example Johnny’s decision to move out of the hotel where he’s been living for years. Coppola follows the entire process, from start to finish — all in the course of about 30 seconds. It ends with “have a good rest of your day.” This is community in Coppola’s Hollywood: you live with the same people for most of your life, but when you’re gone, you’re forgotten.

No wonder spending time — not quality time, just merely spending time — with his daughter seems so fulfilling.

Poor Little Rich Man

Still, it’s pretty hard to watch a movie and be asked to feel sorry for the lives of celebrities. I know it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve seen The Player and Sunset Blvd., and I even tried my hand in L.A. for as long as I could stand it. But someone like Marco who has made it to the A list doesn’t need the sympathy of the moviegoing public.

This is America, but we do have royalty in this country, and they live in Los Angeles. At least Notting Hill — in which Julia Roberts starts a romance with a non-actor (played by no less than Hugh Grant), acknowledges that it’s complete fantasy. For contrast, consider Ceremony — not the best film but released recently — which tackles a similar issue but draws the more realistic conclusion that there is such a thing as a class boundary, and that it really is impermeable.

Asking us masses to pity the upper classes just doesn’t sit well, Even when Coppola and Dorff convince us with details.