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Land of the Lost


Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.1



Posted: September 28, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Two people, both dusted (to varying degrees) with a patina of privilege, while away a numbing parade of hours in a sterile luxury hotel in Japan, unable to articulate to themselves just who they are or what they want. It's not a premise that grabs you with a sense of "Yeah, I can relate," and the fact that one of the figures is a faded movie star, and the other a foundering college graduate in her very early twenties, doesn't help sell the story as one capable of touching everyday audiences. Throw in the fact that the premise is conceived, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, a child of cinematic privilege married to another acclaimed visionary filmmaker, and you've got every reason to view Lost in Translation, with a bemused wariness, as an insular examination of idle-rich ennui.

So it's a surprise that Lost in Translation proves such a quietly affecting portrait of emptiness. Or at least, it would be a surprise, if one could come into the film without having been inundated by its universally glowing reviews. But whatever. Lost in Translation, despite the odds against it, is an unsettlingly poignant little snapshot of a film, its plot-free weightlessness given an air of heartbreaking gravity by Bill Murray. As Bob Harris, an over-the-hill action-movie star, Murray doesn't so much capital-A "act" so much as he just lets portions of his familiar wiseacre facade slowly fall away, revealing a bruised and tired actor whose fading celebrity hasn't bought him any means of escape from an all-too-real world of distant marriage, unfulfilled ambition and a palpable longing for connection.

Bob is in Japan to shoot a whiskey commercial for a $2 million payday, and from the moment he arrives at Tokyo International Airport, it's apparent he's walking numbly through the trappings of his life. It's in his downtime, spent looking, without seeing, around an impersonal hotel bar, that he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), aimless wife of softly aloof photographer John (Giovanni Ribisi). Charlotte's in Tokyo because her husband is in town for work, and she has nothing better to do. She soon befriends Bob for the same reason; John's gone for long days shooting some band or other, leaving Charlotte to her own devices, of which she has very few.

That's about it, story-wise, and it's to Coppola's credit that she resists the temptation to flesh out the narrative with some contrived plot device, or by throwing her characters into bed together. When Bob sleeps with an American lounge singer, Charlotte's wispy sense of betrayal isn't related to Bob's penis; she's let down because the singer's tawdry ordinariness stands in such sharp contrast to the detached air of above-it-all irony she wears like a suit of armor. (Charlotte snorts to learn that a friend of John's, a vacuous American movie starlet played to grating perfection by Anna Faris, is staying in the same hotel under the name Evelyn Waugh; John, clueless, seems personally hurt by her snide revelation that Evelyn Waugh was a guy.)

It's also to Coppola's credit that she never belabors the film's obvious conceit. The culture shock Bob and Charlotte suffer, in a myriad of small, almost imperceptible humiliations, is of course a stand-in for their sense of disconnection from the world at large, from other people, and most assuredly from themselves. This is played occasionally for laughs, in familiar West-meets-East tropes: Bob can't adjust his showerhead to reach above his head; he patiently sits through the rambling rants of his commercial director, which are hilariously translated into all-too-concise directives to be more "intense"; an overbearing call girl grotesquely mimics her version of the typical male sex fantasy. But none of it is overplayed, and it's clear that our Americans' aimlessness is only accented, rather than defined, by their unfamiliar surroundings. Their inability to speak the language is an obvious metaphor, but it's never used as a blunt instrument.

Some parts of Coppola's film do get lost in translation, namely Charlotte's callow identity crisis; at her age, should we really be surprised that she hasn't figured out what to be? The camera lingers more than once over her lithe form, clad in sheer pink panties that set her apart from us as an object of desire, making it all the harder to connect to her as a human being when she assumes the stock arms-folded-around-the-knees posture meant to convey deep thought as she sits in her window and looks out over the city she doesn't understand. But no matter. It's Bob, not Charlotte, we're meant to connect with, and Murray wears Bob's sad-eyed pathos with a stately, weathered grace that should, in a just world, earn him a closet full of awards.

During a kaleidoscopic night out with Charlotte and some of her Japanese friends, Bob winds up in front of that ultimate symbol of skewed translation: the karaoke machine. His honest interpretation of Roxy Music's "More Than This" cements his unlikely (and thankfully celibate) bond with this wisp of a girl, this kindred spirit young enough to be his daughter. And when he must depart for the airport and America, the both of them near tears at their impending separation, he grabs her in a desperate hug and whispers something to her that seems to ease both their lonely burdens. That we can't make out the words is irrelevant, as is the question of whether they'll seek each other out once their real lives have resumed back in the States. All that matters is that both have shared an essential truth, the knowledge of which forever marks them as different from the world around them: There must be something more than this.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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