A little over a decade ago, people were talking about Sophia Coppola. Her father (Francis Ford Coppola) had her replace the ailing Winona Ryder in a key role of The Godfather Part III. Critics were merciless to the young non-actress, despite the fact that her last-minute emergency casting kept the production afloat in a crisis situation. Coppola never acted again, and it seemed like she might be little more than a future answer in a trivia game. These days, people are talking about Sophia Coppola for a different reason. Having weathered that storm, she has gone on to become a respected independent filmmaker. Her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides racked up positive reviews, and now she returns with the triumphant Lost in Translation. Success, as they say, is the best revenge.
Bill Murray stars as Bob Harris, a faded movie star in Tokyo to shoot a series of liquor advertisements. The experience is humiliating for him; because of the language barrier, the photographers and directors are barely able to convey what they want from him. In his downtime, Bob calls his wife back home, and we quickly get the impression that the marriage has seen better days. Just as heís about to board a plane for America, Bob gets a call from his agent, begging him to stay in Tokyo for the rest of the week in order to appear on a top-rated talk show. He balks at the request, feeling like he just wants to get out of this strange land.
He relents after meeting Charlotte (Scarlet Johannson), another American visiting the city. Charlotte is married to a photographer named John (Giovanni Ribisi) who is doing a shoot for a new hip-hop artist. Married only two years, John already thinks she is a snob. He seems more interested in talking to a bubble-headed American actress (Anna Faris) whoís doing a foreign press junket for her mindless new action movie. Bob and Charlotte have a lot in common: theyíre both stuck in a city where they donít speak the language and donít understand the customs. They both feel lonely. They both need a friend.
A lot of films would have had Bob and Charlotte engage in an affair. Lost in Translation is not a typical movie, however. These characters donít fall in love Ė at least not in a romantic sense. This is a story about friendship, about finding someone to connect to in an emotionally intimate way rather a physically intimate way. The story takes its time, showing how these two sad people find things in common and build a bond that neither of them can really explain. Bob and Charlotte go places together. They talk about their lives, their feelings of having messed certain things up. They share stories about themselves. On the positive side, they understand each other and relate to each other. Bob makes Charlotte laugh. She makes him feel like not such a screw-up. Itís a mutually advantageous relationship.
A couple of things really stand out about the movie. First, Coppola does a beautiful job conveying the sense of loneliness and isolation of being in a foreign country. She inserts little scenes of Bob or Charlotte walking through the city, wide-eyed to the climate around them. One very simple moment comes when Charlotte walks into a video arcade. The games are different than the ones that are commonplace in America, and thereís even a subtle difference in the way the kids play the games. What should be a familiar situation for her turns into yet another reminder of how far she is from home. Thereís an equally powerful moment Ė a single shot, really Ė of Bob sitting on the bed in his hotel room looking lost. (The image is used as the filmís poster.) You really get a feeling that Tokyo is someplace odd for Bob and Charlotte. They donít approach it as tourists, running around excitedly seeing the sites. The approach it almost as though the place is so different as to be hostile.
Another really striking element is the way Lost in Translation finds something that occasionally happens between people and presents it realistically. Have you ever had a situation where you became friends with someone strictly because of the time and place you were in? A lot of times it happens with work: you become tight with a co-worker, only to find you have nothing in common when one of you leaves the job. Thatís what this movie is about. Bob and Charlotte probably would not have become friends back in the States; theyíd have nothing in common there. But in Tokyo - where they are both feeling lost and alone, like fish out of water - they have everything in common. I donít recall ever having seen this phenomenon dealt with in a movie before, at least not as well as this film deals with it.
The beautiful performances go a long way toward giving the story resonance. Scarlet Johannson is wonderful as the insecure Charlotte. Thereís a really touching scene in which she lays out her worries to Bob. She talks about her fears of the future, her uncertainty of what to do with her life. She asks the older man for guidance, really hoping that he has something encouraging to tell her. There are a lot of things similar to this lying under the surface of Charlotte; Johannson really makes them understandable and builds a lot of sympathy for the character.
Bill Murray is just as good, and letís lay the cards on the table: this performance deserves an Oscar nomination. The actor is quiet and understated as Bob, who finds himself at a crossroads in life. His career isnít what it used to be. Neither is his marriage. At one point, he says, ďIím here getting $2 million for a liquor ad when I could be doing a play somewhere.Ē Being in Tokyo summarizes Bobís problem in life: he just doesnít get it anymore. Nothing makes much sense. He seems to be doing all the wrong things, all the things that lead him away from happiness. Yet he somehow canít turn back. Murray has always been an outward performer, relying on charisma and comic confrontation. Here, he gives a much more interior performance, hinting at the pain Bob carries around with him. Itís sensational work, proving that Murray has successfully transformed himself into a versatile actor.
The heart of the movie is the relationship between Bob and Charlotte, which Coppola has written with great sensitivity. I realized just how greatly the film was working on me at the end, when one of the characters has to go back home. I felt really emotional knowing that these two people were about to go their separate ways. Perhaps you may have heard about the final scene (no spoilers) in which Bob silently whispers something in Charlotteís ear. I love this scene because itís a Rohrshach test for the audience. What does Bob say? Thatís up to you to decide. It all depends on what you felt as you watched their friendship grow. I have my own theory, but I wonít print it here. Decide for yourself by seeing one of the best pictures of the year.
( out of four)
Lost in Translation is rated R for some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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