Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Tokyo Drifters

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is lyrical, unorthodox, funny, and deeply romantic.


In his essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde proclaimed that the English fad for Japanese décor was only a fanciful creation of Western artists. “The whole of Japan is a pure invention,” he said. “There is no such country, there are no such people.” A century after Wilde’s passing, little has changed — Japanese aesthetic style continues to fascinate and befuddle us Westerners. Sofia Coppola makes Japan the setting of Lost in Translation, and she’s clearly taken by the country, from the Shinto temples and serene gardens to the pachinko parlors and the madness that is Japanese television.

The movie’s about two non-Japanese-speaking Americans who meet as they pass through Japan: Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a burned-out former movie star in Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial, and Charlotte, a college graduate at a loose end who’s tagging along with her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a high-end photographer who’s buried in his work. The movie draws much of its humor from Bob and Charlotte’s failed attempts to understand what’s going on around them. One could accuse Coppola of treating Japan as a nation of funny-looking people chattering in a strange language and wearing t-shirts that say things in English such as “Pizza of Death.” That misses the point. We’re supposed to see things from the limited point of view of these two characters, whose isolation from their environment mirrors their unmoored situations in life.

Bob and Charlotte stay at the same hotel, frequent the same bar, and have trouble sleeping, so it’s only natural that they meet. What follows is an unconventional romance that’s reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s similarly dream-like In the Mood for Love. Bob and Charlotte are too devoted to their respective spouses to do anything when they fall for each other, so their conversations dance around the idea of love, and the dance is riveting to watch. As with Wong’s film, very little actually happens, so moviegoers who see Lost in Translation in the wrong frame of mind may fall asleep. Exercise some patience, however, and the film’s slow, seductive rhythms will put you under its spell, and its insights into its bittersweet romance will repay you handsomely.

Other directors take you for a ride; Sofia Coppola’s movies (this one and her tremendous debut film, The Virgin Suicides) creep in and gradually settle around you like a fog. Whether her visuals here are gauzy or sharp, colorful or high contrast, they’re always appropriate to the moment, as in a great scene shot from overhead where Bob and Charlotte lie side by side in bed late at night and talk about life’s big questions. Aided by cinematographer Lance Acord, who does his most beautiful work yet here, Coppola creates an enchanted wonderland and lets her lovers float through it. Her lyricism is easy to spot, and she doesn’t get enough credit for her sense of humor — check how she sets up the gag in which Bob gets a late-night fax in his hotel room. We should also mention Anna Faris (from the Scary Movie franchise), who does a vicious and terribly funny impression of Cameron Diaz in her portrayal of an airheaded movie star.

Most of the movie’s laughs come from Murray himself, though, as he seems to have ad-libbed more than a few of his jokes (Bob’s ruminations on Charlotte’s banged-up toe comes to mind). The scene in which he tries to respond to a commercial director’s instructions and the one in which he strikes faux-debonair poses for a photographer are vintage stuff from this comic. Nevertheless, there’s always been something ineffably sad about the guy, a quality that served him well in Rushmore and even Groundhog Day. This movie makes even better use of it. The way Murray makes Bob loosen up around Charlotte and yet hold himself in at the same time is a breathtaking feat of acting. His little gestures of self-restraint will slay you, as when Charlotte lays her head on his shoulder and he turns his impulse to put his arm around her into putting his hand on his own knee. As his time in Japan draws to an end, the regret and loss etch themselves on his face. This tragicomic performance may well go down as Bill Murray’s greatest.

The film’s elegiac quality comes from its many references to Murray’s earlier career — he watches one of his old Saturday Night Live clips dubbed into Japanese, he goes golfing, he winds up in bed with a lounge singer. He also takes a couple of turns singing during an extended karaoke interlude that’s one of the film’s highlights, as Charlotte essays “Brass in Pocket” (Johansson looks even more like luscious perfection in this scene than she does in the rest of the movie), and Bob responds with a dead serious rendition of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” while gazing at her. This dizzying romantic high reminds you that Coppola has a terrific ear for music along with her other gifts. It also crystallizes everything else that makes her so promising. Her technical mastery, her restless intelligence about human behavior, her ability to evoke complex moods, and her refusal to fit her movies into comfortable molds add up to an awesomely talented filmmaker. Lost in Translation is small in scale, but the youthful Sofia Coppola and the veteran Bill Murray make it an enormously powerful meditation on the pains and joys of love.

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