As a director Sofia Coppola has taken a fair amount of criticism for making hermetically sealed movies about poor little rich folk; and with her fourth film, Somewhere, she's taking it again. That's not the sort of thing you can disagree with - nor can one really do anything to disprove the fairly obvious fact that Somewhere (which won the 2010 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) takes a hell of a lot of narrative details from Coppola's best-known film, Lost in Translation.

In point of fact, Somewhere is so typical of the director's small body of work as to be quintessential: this is Sofia Coppola's obsessions and aesthetic predilections boiled down and concentrated. Which is going to annoy and piss off a lot of people, and completely entrance a much smaller number, and then in between are those of us who are fascinated by what Coppola is doing while finding that she doesn't always do it completely well. I am inclined to say that, despite the great debt the new movie owes to Lost in Translation., it mostly reminded me of her most recent prior film, 2006's Marie Antoinette, in effect rather than in content: like that project, it feels like there's an absolute masterpiece cowering inside, if only the director would have the courage to go all the way with her challenging, even maverick stylistic choices, rather than pushing a bit and then seeming to glance back over her shoulder as if to ask, "Is that okay? Or is it a little too anti-commercial?" Then, it was the exhilarating modernist dressings she applied to her period biopic with only some consistency; now, it's a brutal depiction of the psychologically void celebrity presented with a lack of emphasis on either plot or character development in any of the ways we normally think of those things that, so help me God, suggests that Coppola wants nothing so much as to bring the clinical nihilism of Michelangelo Antonioni back to movie screens; and yet somewhere along the line, her nerve fails her, and the film keeps scraping against a far more typical "sad dad given a sense of worth by his daughter" story that isn't in and of itself, bad. Unfortunately, the two movies do not gel together much at all, and it always feels like Somewhere wants to end up "meaning" more than it does, with the traditional Hollywood elements of the father/daughter plotline writing checks that the more pervasive "detachment from cultural norms and modes of identity" elements don't cash, but rather rip up and light on fire with a Brechtian cackle.

Though the film hinges on a daughter feeling adrift when her super-famous daddy spends more time making his art than loving her, Somewhere has nothing at all of the autobiographical about it: in fact, the protagonist is the emotionally-stilted father, and the disappointed girl/Sofia Coppola analogue is barely a character at all, but a plot mechanic, albeit one treated with inordinate delicacy by the director and performer. At any rate, the story is about Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a famous movie star, though we are deliberately given almost no sense of what kind of movies he makes; mostly, he's promoting the European release of something called Berlin Agenda, apparently a spy thriller with a poster that shrieks "Premiered on USA Network the week before its DVD release", though we are shown over and over that Johnny is iconic enough that nearly everyone he meets knows him. At a certain point, his ex-wife (Lala Sloatman) has to go flake out for a while - why, where, how long are all left unanswered - and Johnny is left in care of their 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), a longer period of time with his offspring than Johnny has apparently ever experienced before.

You might suppose it writes itself, but it absolutely does not: sentiment and schmaltz are as far away as Coppola can banish them, and the degree to which Cleo's presence redeems Johnny, as well as the process by which that happens, are not issues which Somewhere finds terribly interesting. The film's main focus is on taking slices of Johnny's life, and observing them with a fierce degree of alienation - even though the story progresses in straightforward, easily understood chronological order, there's a definite sense that what we're watching is a fragmentary version of events. Far from being a schmoopy tale of a famous person that nobody wuvs, Coppola's story is a much more slippery thing: the story of a man who thinks he has all that he needs to be satisfied, realises that the bland emptiness he's been feeling is proof of the very opposite, and starts to consider the sort of things he needs to do to fix that. The fact that he is a movie star is practically incidental, except in that it permits the director to indulge in more symbolism than most American movies would dare to consider seemly in these neo-neo-realist times: the actor as a figure without a real self, Los Angeles, city of dreams, as a collection of facades and styles without substance or meaning.

At times, honestly, the symbolism is a bit much: the opening shot, endless minutes long, is the image of Johnny in his Ferrari, driving around and around a circular track, never stopping and never getting anywhere; the last image, part of a series of shots cribbing indiscriminately from the end of Lost in Translation., sees this and trumps it, bringing the equation that fancy car=shallow, unexplored life to its heavyhanded conclusion. And yet there's something ecstatic in Coppola's refusal to soft-sell her heavily metaphorical tone poem of a movie: it is what it is, and that's that.

Helping out along the way are ace cinematographer Harris Savides, stepping in for Coppola regular Lance Acord, and ace editor Sarah Flack, already Coppola's go-to editor; between them, they craft a world of endless long takes and jagged montages assembled according to a rhythm that nobody could explain rationally, yet which fits the emotional tenor of the movie perfectly (though I regret the halfsies approach Savides takes: he seems to be trying to do an impression of Acord, almost, and it's not a cosy fit). Grainy and flat in ways that firmly underline Johnny's fatigue at life - one indelible scene finds him dozing off while two blond strippers gyrate in his bedroom, filmed to look as resolutely unsexy as attractive half-naked women conceivable can look - Somewhere is not conventionally pretty, and the pace of the editing leaves it a touch jumpy and draggy in turn; but convention would not suit this movie one inch.

Oh, Somewhere! you could be such a singular achievement, a character investigation that uses none of the typical Hollywood tricks and in so doing both explicitly and implicitly indicts the Hollywood apparatus, while crafting one of 2010's most haunting depictions of a tormented soul - but Coppola chokes, in entirely avoidable ways. There's a lengthy trip to Italy that recalls Lost in Translation. to absolutely no benefit; there are a great many scenes that make their point, and then make it again, and then make it a third time just in case we missed it (and in so doing, betrays the exemplary work done by both Dorff and Fanning, two actors for whom I had no expectations, and whose unnaturally quiet, normalising performances are the heart of the movie: Fanning's terrific awareness of her proto-pubescent body, playing both a kid and a young woman jostling for prominence in a single under-loved daughter; Dorff's eerie habit of catching up with himself, which is more easily demonstrated than explained; there is a great scene where Johnny watches Cleo skating in which Dorff goes from detachment to amazed pride, and lastly to suddenly realising how amazed and proud he is, and all of this happens such that we're not actively aware of any of it until it's over). The director rather seems to doubt herself, which perhaps reflects the generally condescending response to her career, and perhaps is because she is aware of the terrible weight imposed by her surname, even as it opens any number of doors. She comes so close to making a great film with Somewhere that it's doubly depressing that it ends up just being good and tremendously uncommon; still, I wouldn't trade it for anything, and even if Coppola always remains stuck in this tentative, half-formed mode, she's still more interesting than most of her peers.