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Lost in Translation (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Lost in Translation


Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Akiko Kakashito, Kazuyoshi Minamimagoe, Catherine Lambert, Kazuko Shibata, Take, Ryuichiro Baba, Akira Yamaguchi, Francois du Bois, Tim Leffman, Gregory Pekar, Yutaka Tadokoro, Nao Asuka, Tetsuro Naka, Yasohiko Hattori, Lisle Wilkerson and Richard Allen.

Screenplay by Sofia Coppola.

Directed by Sofia Coppola.

Distributed by Focus Features. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.

One of the dirty little secrets of show business is that huge stars who would never do anything so mundane and compromised as advertising in their homeland will often take the big bucks to shill products in Japan. If you watched TV there in the last decade or so, you would find Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford pushing beer, Woody Allen recommending a chain of department stores, Paul Newman selling watches, Brad Pitt marketing cars, Jodie Foster and Mariah Carey promoting cosmetics… the list goes on and on.

This phenomenon forms the backbone of this unique new story from writer director Sofia Coppola. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a beloved American star who is flown into the land of the Rising Sun to film a commercial for a local brand of whiskey.

Harris is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He is twenty-five years into a stagnating marriage where his wife seems to have become more interested in the kids and carpet swatches than she is in him. He is jet lagged and yet he can’t sleep because his body clock is thrown completely out of whack. Everything around him is odd and alien. He can’t understand what most people in Japan are saying to him.

Nor can he understand why he’s doing a booze commercial in Tokyo when he could be doing a play or movie at home. Well, okay, he does understand why, as he flippantly explains to a near stranger, “two-million dollars,” but that knowledge does not make him happy about it.

That near stranger is a young American girl named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson of Ghost World). She too is lost in Tokyo. Charlotte came out of boredom with her rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Only two years into the marriage and Charlotte also is having deep doubts. Her husband is always so busy with work that he has little time for her.

On the rare occasions that he does let her into his world, she finds the people there shallow and superficial. Charlotte spends most of the day alone in a hotel room trying to find something to do. Even the TV is strange and frenetic. She too can’t sleep and doesn’t know what to do with himself.

Bob and Charlotte first see each other on an elevator, and then meet on one of their many sleepless nights at the hotel bar. They don’t talk at first but keep running into each other. They start making small talk, and then get deeper. They quickly grow close, partially because they have found a kindred spirit, partially because they feel isolated from the world surrounding them.

Bob and Charlotte experience Tokyo together: they go out, they sing karaoke, they get thrown out of a bar. But most importantly they talk. They really come to understand each other at a time when they feel both totally misunderstood by everyone else. There is a hint of sexual tension between the two, but it is to the movie’s credit that it is not acted upon, except for one brief kiss. Because Lost in Translation isn’t about losing oneself in another person, it is about finding oneself.

Writer/director Coppola does a wonderful job of capturing Tokyo’s culture (and cult) of technology… it is a constant swirl of blinking lights and noise and motion. She shows the city to be simultaneously beautiful and awe-inspiring and overwhelming and a bit disorienting.

Murray’s performance is breathtaking. The basset-hound features and quick wit of his comic performances are shrouded in a fog of disjointedness and exquisitely sad eyes. Here is a man who is famous for making others happy, but sometimes is seems like an obligation to him, a curse. Everyone thinks that they know him, but no one really does. Murray is able to convey this contradiction in his life with a brief sigh or a desperate look. Comedians almost never get serious consideration by the Academy, but this is an Oscar-worthy performance.

The pleasant surprise is that Johansson is able to keep up with his performance so completely. Her Charlotte is bruised… figuratively and literally. She is touched when Bob insists she go to a hospital for a black toe she got from stubbing it, a wound which her husband hadn’t even noticed. She has a subtle girl-next-door sexiness, but she doesn’t trust her looks, particularly when she and her husband run into a vapid Hollywood ingénue (Anna Faris) who seems just a little too friendly to him. She fears that she has made a big mistake in getting married, but she has no idea what else she is supposed to be doing with her life.

Charlotte should be a breakout role for Johansson, and any work she gets from it is completely deserved.

As for Sofia Coppola, she has been hearing whispers of nepotism since she was a girl and father Francis Ford Coppola cast her in his films New York Stories and The Godfather Part III. Well, her acting skills were debatable, but the jibes were doubled in 1999… when she married director Spike Jonze and announced like her father and husband, she was going to direct. Her first film, The Virgin Suicides, was good enough that some people realized maybe she could do it on her own, but the stigma remained.

Lost in Translation should hush all the doubters. It is better than anything that her father has done in years, and though it’s not as flashy as hubby Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, it is a more subtly moving and insightful experience than either of those films. Soon Francis is going to start having to get used to being called Sofia Coppola’s father. (9/03)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Posted: October 5, 2003.

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