Mark Reviews Movies

LOST IN TRANSLATION

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

MPAA Rating:  (for some sexual content)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 9/12/03 (limited)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

The power of Lost in Translation is in the way it sneaks up on you. At the end of the film, there's a montage of Tokyo as a character heads to the airport that captures the feeling of leaving a place after a vacation. There's a dreamlike ambiance to the film that puts us in the middle of the languid partying and detached sightseeing of its lead characters as they meet, hang out, talk, and find common ground on which to connect. The film is about barriers of language, age, relationships, culture, and education, and they serve two dramatic purposes. When confronted with these barriers, there's the comedy of being uncomfortable with them, but the film goes beyond that comic convention to allow the characters a chance to try and break those barriers down, whether it be in the partaking of honest discussions, too much sake, or bad karaoke. The title hints at the theme of barriers, and it obviously serves as a description of the situation at hand—two Americans who only speak English in Tokyo. Writer/director Sofia Coppola is getting at something deeper with the title, though, and it's that somewhere along the way, these two people's dreams have been lost in life's expectations.

Actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in Tokyo to serve as a spokesman for whiskey. It's cushy work, with his lodging expenses covered, his any need available at a call, and a two million dollar paycheck waiting for him at the end of filming a commercial, participating in a photo shoot, and, if he wants, making a talk show appearance. The job is certainly worth it for the money, but Bob is also looking to escape his home life for a little while. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is also in the city with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). He spends his days away at work shooting a rock band, leaving her to sit alone in their hotel room. Married life isn't what she thought it would be. She just graduated from Yale with a degree in Philosophy, so we know this trip isn't going to help her career any. Both Bob and Charlotte are having trouble sleeping thanks to jet lag and perhaps a deeper dissatisfaction with life. There's a chance meeting of eyes in the elevator, which leads to other more eventful meetings in the bar late at night when neither of them can sleep and eventually to a relationship of late-night carousing and dialogue.

Coppola's screenplay is a collection of scenes that revolve around either character or thematic development and sometimes both simultaneously. Just as it takes until the film's final images to appreciate just how engrossed we have become in the film, a lot of scenes play well on viewing but grow in meaning after the spell has worn off and analysis comes into play. If one looks at the film as an alternately generalized and specific fable of encountering and overcoming barriers, a few humorous set pieces take on a sort of humanistic significance. Take a simple scene in a hospital waiting room between Bob and an elderly person for example. It's amusing how he tries to use gestures to communicate, but there's also the point that he is legitimately trying to communicate. On the other hand, there's a hilarious talk show scene that Bob agrees to mainly to stay with Charlotte longer, but it also brings him more into the culture surrounding him. Both Bob and Charlotte have other such experiences. They wander around the city together, of course, but they also have moments alone. Bob plays golf against a panorama of Mt. Fuji, and Charlotte takes in an idyllic temple setting.

The relationship between these two characters is fascinating, mostly because Coppola focuses on developing them as individuals. Bob gives a most telling line early on, when he confesses that he'd rather be doing a play somewhere. Why then has he taken this job?   Charlotte jokes with him about being in the middle of a midlife crisis, and we can see why. His career as a movie star is clearly on the decline. Perhaps this is just one last taste of fame, but if it is, why is he so downtrodden? He notes how he took the trip to escape his wife, but watch how she's still present even with an ocean dividing them. She faxes him cabinet specification and mails him carpet samples for his new den. These adult responsibilities have taken away from his dreams, so he connects to Charlotte. She's in the worst kind of relationship; her husband thinks she's too snooty. Later when she says that she doesn't like her writing, we wonder if it's true or simply a manifestation of her husband's criticisms. Charlotte is out of her element with John, and hence we have the presence of a vapid actress played with wonderful satire by Anna Faris. His world is the world of the actress and her sensibilities, and she's simply not a part of that façade.

Charlotte cannot communicate her frustration and sadness with anyone else, as we see in a phone call to one of her busy friends, but she can talk to Bob. Late one night after watching an old movie, she can't help but ask if marriage gets any easier, giving us a more complete view of the extent of her feelings. Bob's answer isn't too encouraging, but it's honest. Their relationship is this complex mixture of mentor/student and lovers. There are boundaries, though, and the presence of a lounge singer helps set them. Bob has an affair with the singer, which shows that Bob and Charlotte's relationship isn't sexual. If it was, they'd have an affair, but there's still palpable tension underneath their encounters, which Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play off beautifully. Murray carries himself like a man defeated. There's a longing in his eyes that we know this week of partying will not cure. Murray has moments of brilliant comic improvisation, giving us a man who tries to hide his unhappiness with irony. Johansson gives us a similar feeling, and despite her young age, her honest performance gives us the impression that she's gone through a lifetime of disappointment.

There are two scenes I haven't talked about yet that seem vital to unlocking part of Lost in Translation's thematic aim, and coincidentally, they happen to be two of my favorite scenes from the film. Both involve Bob's professional experiences. In the first, he's shooting a commercial and given only two directions: turn to the camera and look intense. In the second, he's being photographed for print ads while the photographer is very specific about what he wants. Too much or too little direction is an actor's nightmare, and that's the way most of us live our lives. Bob had probably had too much, and Charlotte clearly has had very little. We're not sure about Bob, but hopefully this relationship has given Charlotte some idea of what to do next.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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