Lost in Translation

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/11/04 04:16:33

"A beautiful showcase of life and emotions."
5 stars (Awesome)

The key word in Lost in Translation is “lost.” The film could have been set in another foreign country for things like the language barrier - the “translation” part, in theory - but it couldn’t have been the same. Japan, especially from the American point of view, is a different world. We recognize it as a developed nation with technology from here to Sunday, but as far as the culture goes, Tokyo might as well be on Mars.

Placed against this confusing backdrop are American film star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and young photographer’s wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Both are in Japan on business-related errands - Bob is being paid a lot of money to endorse a whiskey, while Charlotte’s husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) has various photography projects to work on.

Bob and Charlotte are recognizable from the start as lost souls, and the question is not whether they will meet but what will happen when they do. Their first meetings are painted with the feeling that these are two people who, despite being strangers, recognize each other. Charlotte recognizes Bob because he is a movie star, famous around the world, but she treats him as anybody else; in turn, Bob respects her for being a real person, showing a disdain for the sycophants who surround him throughout much of the film.

Lost in Translation is like an easier-to-follow version of L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 satire of modern life. The two main characters have a distinct alienation from modern society, something writer/director Sofia Coppola heightens with numerous shots of Charlotte staring out at the vast, endless sprawl of Tokyo. The background to a strange, low-key friendship is a city that blinks with a rapid-fire, seizure-inducing blast of light, full of traffic and noise and neon. It is as baffling as it is beautiful.

Like L’Avventura and most “statement” movies, Lost in Translation doesn’t always work. Filmmakers working in satire too often devolve into hyperbole in the midst of more subtle work, and Coppola falls into the trap a couple times. Anna Faris’ over-the-top turn as a Cameron Diaz caricature is good for yuks, but it seems out of place in a movie that is usually more anonymous in its rebukes. That Ribisi’s character is friends with this cartoonish airhead suggests to us that Charlotte is out of place amid her husband’s crowd, but this is a point that was already made, and more subtly. Similarly, it is just a bit hyper-obvious to have Charlotte’s karaoke song of choice be “Brass in Pocket” and Bob’s be “More Than This,” though Murray’s performance of the latter song is outstanding from a character standpoint.

Making the faux-Diaz more extraneous is the end of the film, a far more metaphorical swipe at Tinseltown. Coppola pointedly eschews Hollywood tradition with an ending that moves swiftly from seeming cliché to more avant-garde, and leaves the audience with a mixture of happiness and heartbreak. It is anti-convention to the utmost, but it works like a charm.

It doesn’t hurt that Coppola has the two actors about the most capable of selling the material. Murray’s turn is probably just a step behind his work in Rushmore, but it easily ranks with his best; as a comedian doing drama while still retaining some humor, Murray is the performer Jim Carrey wishes he were. Scarlett Johansson is pitch-perfect – if she didn’t break through with Ghost World, it’s hard to see how she couldn’t do so after this. Eighteen playing twenty-two, Johansson never makes us doubt for a second that she could potentially be falling for a man old enough to be her father – which would seem like a stretch if it were anyone else – and while the role requires shading that would be easy to screw up, Johansson nails it.

All of these aspects combine into a special package. Coppola does not get everything right, but it is most important that she gets everything right that can’t be gotten wrong. Lost in Translation’s satire may be a bit heavy at times, but it moves most of the way with a light touch that most films would be grateful to have. My one caution would be that the introspection the film causes might result in one feeling a bit down; looking at life from the perspective of someone disillusioned with modernity can be depressing if you don't have someone to share that feeling with as Bob and Charlotte do.

Of course, if being down is the result of a film actually leaving the viewer with something to think about, maybe it’s not that bad.

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