Friday Film Focus: Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation, directed by the superb Sofia Coppola, is 102 wondrous minutes that will restore your faith in the power of movies.

This is a film exploring themes of disillusionment, fidelity, and commercialism. It’s also one in which you’re never far from a laugh or a delicate tug of the heartstrings. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play two souls rattling around a Tokyo hotel in the middle of the night. They fall into conversation about their happiness, their marriages, and the meaning of it all. These type of conversations can really only be held with strangers. We all at one point need to talk about metaphysics, and those who know us well want specifics and details; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely and express more openly.

Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star with many brainless blockbusters under his belt. He’s in Japan to shoot a whiskey commercial for a cool $2 million. He’s also nursing a midlife crisis stemming from an aimless marriage and career. At nighttime, he floats in a limo bubble through the neon glitter of Tokyo. “Do I need to worry about you?” his wife asks over the phone. “Only if you want to be,” he replies. She’s more concerned about fabric samples for their house. Charlotte (Johansson) is three decades younger than Bob, but she shares his sense of loneliness and adrift. A Yale philosophy graduate, she’s in Tokyo with her husband (young Giovanni Ribisi) — a slick photographer who leaves her alone to find herself while he’s off shooting rock stars. Coppola has no fear of being un-dramatic in showing these two characters alone and vulnerable. Examples include Bob in his kimono and Charlotte in her underwear — each gazing through the windows at the city below. Bob and Charlotte do not know each other. But for a moment they’re in different suites in the same impossibly posh hotel.

This a classic set-up for a film romance. However, Lost in Translation is too smart and thoughtful to be the kind of movie where they continue to share something as generic as their genitals rather than something as personal as their feelings. Coppola catches the disconnect that comes from being a stranger in a strange land. These are two wonderful performances. Murray has never been better (except for Rushmore of course). He doesn’t simply play “Bill Murray” or any other conventional idea of a film star. Instead, he invents Bob Harris from the inside out. He plays a man who is on autopilot. Bob is both happy and sad with his life. He’s stuck, and resigned to be stuck.

The writer-director is also smart enough to pepper her screenplay with comic set-pieces in which Bill Murray can semi-cut loose. TV sets, hospital waiting rooms, golf courses, and hotel gyms serve as a backdrop against Murray’s comic genius. Murray is flat out hilarious as Bob shoots the whiskey commercial. It’s dependent on a translator who maddeningly condenses tirades from the Japanese director into such critiques as “Look at the camera like a friend.” He is tired of doing commercials for the money and hates himself for it. In these scenes, there are many opportunities for Murray to turn up the heat under his comedic persona. He chooses to stay in character instead. He is always Bob Harris…who could be the life of the party, who could be funny, who could do impressions at a bar, but doesn’t. This is because funny is what he does for a living, and right now he is too tired and too sad to do it for free.

Charlotte has been married only a couple of years, but its clear that her husband feels she is in the way of his career progressing. Filled with his own self-importance — and flattered that a starlet (played by Anna Faris) knows his name– he leaves her behind in the hotel room. Bob and Charlotte soon meet in a hotel lounge, and a friendship develops. Most of the time nobody knows where they are, or even cares. Their togetherness is all that keeps them from being lost and alone. The growing romance is portrayed with a delicate beauty, including a breathtaking moment in a karaoke lounge. Murray croons Roxy Music’s hit “More Than This.” His eyes meet Charlotte’s and, in a single take, the electric connection between the two characters is made clear. They continue to wonder around Tokyo — an alien metropolis to which they don’t have the key. They go to drug parties, pachinko parlors and, again and again, the hotel bar.

As Tokyo comes alive, so do Bob and Charlotte. Coppola and her actors negotiated the hazards of comedy and romance. They never truly solve their problems, but feel a little better anyway. Before saying goodbye, Bob runs after Charlotte and whispers something to her that the audience can’t hear. But we shouldn’t be allowed to hear it. It’s between them. By this time in the film, the characters have become real enough to deserve their privacy. The beautiful encounter between these two is built to last, if only in their memories.

Image source: Plot & Theme