Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a Hollywood actor ensconced at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. He’s between movies so his days are filled with booze and women and fast cars and while that sounds kinda hot, it’s really a metaphor for how empty his life is, but that’s okay, because for now it’s just enough to stave off the kind of boredom that makes us turn inward and draw some uncomfortable conclusions about ourselves. So far, Johnny has remained introspection-free and what passes for happy. Good enough.
And then his 11 year old daughter shows up. Cleo (Elle Fanning) inexplicably grows fond of him, and her persistent sweetness eventually jostles him out of his ennui. To his surprise, alien, paternal feelings start to surface. Not only does he care for his daughter, he wants to be better for her. It’s a bit of a wake-up call. But then she goes off to summer camp and finding himself alone again, Johnny isn’t sure who he has become, or if he can sustain any of the positive changes. But we have reason to hope.
It’s a little hard to sympathize with Johnny’s privileged moping, so for me, the movie really gets juicy with Cleo’s arrival, which grounds him and helps him to redefine both happiness and success. Director Sofia Coppola tackled themes of success and isolation in other movies too, but this time she’s doing it from the male perspective, where depression looks a lot like hedonism, minus the enjoyment.
Cleo is a clever child and an interesting character. In some ways, it is she who parents and nurtures him, and we get the sense that she probably understands more about what’s gone wrong with his life than he does. But she’s still young and can’t help but look up to him, troubling as that may be. Fanning and Dorff have some pretty charming chemistry together. It’s very telling how the film only feels alive when she’s on screen with him. When she’s gone, it’s not just her father who misses her. She leaves a void.
Coppola is particularly qualified to provide this less-than-savoury look at celebrity. Johnny is working, but he’s not doing his craft, he’s doing the annoying, soul-crushing stuff like press and publicity. Anyone else might appreciate the free vacation to Italy, but for him, Venice is just another obligation. Sure this might be a bit of a retread for Coppola, but there’s a sweet melancholy to this film, at times almost hypnotic, plus her classic eye for detail and style – irresistible, really.