Lost In Translation

October, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Sofia Coppola

Starring:Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson

Lost in Translation

The movie opens with the partial torso of a reclining woman, seen from the rear. She's wearing a sweater--and thin pink panties, diaphanous enough to see the cleavage of her buttocks. No voice-over occurs--what you see is what you get--which is, at one and the same time, both less than more than what you've been led to expect.

Seeing this slick "Odd Couple" romantic comedy reminded me of examining a piece of 18th century hand-painted china at the Met; pleasing to the eye, evidencing considerable artistic skill, but overall very, very brittle. Bill Murray, in an absolutely spot-on performance plays over-the-hill movie star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to pick up a lot of coin for appearing in a series of vapid scotch ads for a Japanese company. He chances upon Charlotte, a young married woman marooned in Bob's hotel while her photographer-husband, (Giovanni Ribisi) is off on a shoot. 

Bob's at that stage in his career when (1) he knows his best days as an actor are behind him and (2) ahead lays the kind of celebrity showmanship epitomized by his current assignment. The future isn't black--it's just dull gray. Charlotte, with a degree in philosophy and in the sophomore year of her marriage to a self-absorbed, celebrity sycophant can't figure out what she's supposed to do with her life. Thus thrown together, Bob and Charlotte develop something approaching a relationship during a few short days of sightseeing in a completely alien society.

Part smart travelogue, (thanks to some inspired cinematography & the sheen of modern Tokyo's neon-lit nights) part comedy of social manners, writer-director Sophia Coppula's second film is thoroughly assured and tres chic--aided enormously by the pitch-perfect performance of Murray, who manages a weary, bemused reaction to the velvet vise his life's become. Without great evidence of self-pity--and more than a few examples of sharp self-recognition-- he gradually helps Charlotte realize her life will be a good deal more complex than she's imagined and that youthful impatience offers little hope as a successful coping-mechanism. She, in turn, painfully personifies the road not taken for a successful man in late middle age with a wife and kids at home who don't beckon him with the passion and conviction they should.

Coppula has a sharp ear for the inanity of cocktail-lounge chatter, and the mysteriously cheerful tone of Japanese business/social exchanges, but there's less substance here than polyurethane surfaces; as the camera follows this mis-matched pair around the city their exchanges rarely contain anything noteworthy. She's self-absorbed; he's jaded. That self-recognition puts them only marginally ahead of the few remaining characters we're introduced to - - Ribisi's inarticulate, whiney husband and Anna Feris as a Brittany Spears look-alike, bubble-headed starlet. After 105 minutes of this hip pairing, enough is more than enough. 

The result?  Small beer, skillfully brewed--and Murray's work will garner one of the Oscar nominations for best actor next spring in a cakewalk.   

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