LOST IN TRANSLATION4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Lonely aging movie star meets bored newlywed girl while both are briefly in Tokyo. The basic story may not seem particularly new or interesting, but the actual film stands in stark contrast to such an assumption.
Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson discover that jet lag in Tokyo is perfectly daijobu
Lost in Translation is writer-director Sofia Coppola’s second film after her eerie debut The Virgin Suicides, and it displays a remarkable sophistication in characterization and cinematic design. The two main characters exude great loneliness when they find themselves in a luxury hotel in one of the most crowded cities in the world. The film cleverly brings them together by isolating them from anyone else who might understand them, literally and figuratively, including their friends, family, work colleagues, and even their spouses. Through the simple but elegant conceit of jet lag, the two find each other while enjoying the hotel’s pool and jazz lounge.
As effective as the script is, it’s the actors who drive the film. Scarlett Johansson, the whiny brat from The Horse Whisperer, has grown into a smart nymphomaniac who would make even the demanding Humbert Humbert loosen his tie. Yet she never plays her role of Charlotte in an overtly sexual way; rather, Coppola captures her that way. The camera lingers on her at waist level when she’s in her underwear, voyeuristically observes her putting on lipstick, and relishes her startled reaction to the lurid nudity in the manga the clerks read on the subway. Johansson’s Charlotte is more contemplative than hormonal, however, as she wisely takes on the blandness of those around her, ponders the location of her soul, and explores the philosophy of Buddhist life. She replaces conventional sexuality with sensual and intellectual curiosity that is ultimately much more hypnotic.
Johansson’s brilliance provides a perfect foil for her co-star, who delivers one of the most finely tuned performances of his career. Bill Murray, widely known for his comedic roles, has shown a deft ability to turn his mischievous persona into quirky dramatic turns, as in Ed Wood and, more recently, Rushmore. While those films gave Murray a few minutes to shine, Coppola gives him a well-deserved dramatic lead. Murray’s comic timing and sarcastic wit are present and perfect, but only make up the first part of his performance. After these initial moments, the film unfolds and Murray’s Bob Harris becomes a much more complex and engaging character. He breaks out of his malaise and enjoys the company of a kindred spirit as they explore Tokyo together, and his authentic joy is palpable. Through moments of thoughtful compassion and mournful regret, he achieves the rare state where an audience of strangers actually cares what happens to him.
Although Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris play supporting roles, they are placed in the film as plot elements and objects of absurdity, respectively. The real protagonist in this film is the city of Tokyo itself. Once Johansson and Murray venture out of the hotel, Tokyo beckons with all sorts of unfamiliar tastes and sights. Coppola shows the dazzling video walls of Shibuya, films a surreal chase through a pachinko parlor, and infuses the strange familiarity of the science fiction world of modern Tokyo into her film. The sheer alien beauty and vital pulse of the city are not lost on her, and the setting breathes more life into her tale of lost souls than that of a more occidental city.
Coppola also adds a self-conscious element to the film. “Every girl has a photography phase where they take bad pictures of their feet,” says Johansson’s Charlotte. Spellbound viewers may recall a scene early in the film in which Coppola’s camera lingers on Johansson’s feet for several seconds before panning upward – suggesting that Coppola is telling us her own story through the filter of fiction. Coppola seems to relish this teasing, reflexive quality, which becomes something of a trademark given The Virgin Suicides’ unexplained, distant perspective. Lost in Translation also has some unexplained moments, as hilarious Japanese dialogue goes untranslated and an important conversation goes unheard. But while this methodology seems overdone and even wrong in its earlier mystery, this through-the-glass approach works surprisingly well in this film about seeking and understanding.