Lost in Translation (2003)Rated R for some sexual content.
Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Fumihiro Hayashi.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Focus Features. All rights reserved.
A Lonely Dream in Tokyo
Not having seen Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, I didn't know what to expect from her latest feature, Lost in Translation. I'd heard her previous movie was "dreamlike," a word that could easily be used to describe her new one as well. If their moods are similar in any way, I may have found a new director to closely follow -- Coppola's mood-setting is pitch-perfect with Lost in Translation.
This movie was like a reflection of one of my fantasies -- to be lost and alone in a strange place, full of strangers, feeling kind of sad and wistful. Not surprisingly, I dream about this feeling, and Coppola has put my dream on film. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a past-his-prime movie actor who now turns to gigs hawking liquor for ads in Tokyo. Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, the very young wife of a photographer who is in Tokyo for a shoot and is staying at the same hotel as Bob. Both Bob and Charlotte are disenchanted spirits -- one of them has lived much of life and now finds nowhere to go, while the other is just starting out her own life and also has nowhere to go. Stuck in a city so vastly different in vibe and energy than what they're normally used to in their personal lives, they look for something to connect to and discover it when they meet.
If the movie were about nothing but being lost, I think I would have been quite happy with it, but, naturally, it does take the next step. When Bob and Charlotte find each other, they warm up to their connection, acknowledging it with humor and light conversation. Soon, they're embracing it, ever so cautiously but wholeheartedly. The depiction of this relationship is a thing of beauty -- we recognize that they might love each other, but they both know better, realizing the dovetailing of their kindred spirits is what's really giving them something to look forward to. A lesser movie would have them fall in love, then show how the repression of it is hurting each of them inside, or something like that. I don't like many of those kinds of stories -- Lost in Translation provides a less naive, more realistic scenario that shows what it means to find someone who understands, and how valuable just that one event can be to one's emotions.
Mood setting is a key aspect here, and Coppola delivers. Many of her shots are observational -- one person against an interesting backdrop (like a golfer on a course with Mt. Fuji in the background), or the point-of-view of a person looking at a strange sight. Her atmosphere is aided by wondrous cinematography, good soundtrack choices, and A-game performances by Murray and Johansson. Their parts are not showy, requiring a lot of facial subtlety and a gamut of expressions, from wonder and awe to boredom and reservation. Both actors ace their assignments.
Sadly, the movie has one flaw that prevented me from embracing it entirely -- Tokyo becomes a casualty of the story. The city has as much personality as any of the characters, but the movie never truly acknowledges its individuality as something that is potentially admirable nor embraceable. The film does have serene shots of gardens and cityscapes, but, more often than not, the city's idiosyncrasies are poked fun at. This is not really anyone's fault -- the movie's point is to show how alienated its protagonists are, and, quite possibly, they couldn't have chosen a better place to alienate them than modern Tokyo. But, for the purposes of the story, it didn't have to be Tokyo -- it could have been Rio de Janiero, an alien planet, or a city in the future, and it might have worked just as well. The strangeness of Tokyo is incidental and doesn't need to be more than that, so, unfortunately, the strongest impression we get of the place is that it's just wacky. It's unfortunate because Tokyo isn't familiar to a majority of moviegoers, and its depiction in this movie only makes use of its strangeness, which isn't really fair to it.
An interesting idea would have been to place the story in New York -- a place many are familiar with but might possibly be very strange and alienating to someone unfamiliar with it. As it is, Lost in Translation probably couldn't have been made any other way -- the unfamiliar uniqueness of Tokyo makes it a perfect backdrop for both the story and its duplication of the protagonists' feeling of isolation for its audience to experience. Still, the movie could have afforded to drop some of its easier gags, like the "Lip my pantyhose" scene. Imagine Roman Holiday as if it were made so you could feel ok laughing at Rome.
If nothing else, at least Lost in Translation is extremely honest. Bob and Charlotte feel the way they do about Tokyo because, well, that's really how they would feel. And the realism of the characters provides the film its strength and drive. Is it a little sad that when Bob describes Tokyo to his wife, he says, "It's different. Not fun, just different"? Sure it is, but, for him, it's the truth. And for the movie, it adds another bit of authenticity to that dreamlike feeling of being alone in a strange land.
©Jeffrey Chen, Sep. 2, 2003