Lost in Translation (2003)


Ebert: Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:

The children of celebrities will always have a hard time establishing their own talent.  They are seen as the ultimate coat-tail riders.  Sofia Coppola has had the unfortunate triple whammy of: 

  1. Being the daughter of Godfather and Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola.
  2. Being cast by her father and then critically condemned for her role in Godfather III.
  3. Being married to quirky mad genius Spike Jonze who directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

That is why it was double-brave of her to attempt a career directing films.  Her first feature film The Virgin Suicides, was well received by reviewers despite their private desire to twist the blade they stabbed her with after Godfather III.  It was a very well made movie and there was just no way to say otherwise.  

With Lost in Translation, Sophia has transcended the curse of the father and become a genuine master film maker.  She has written and directed a subtle work of genius.  In its own strange little category it could easily be the best film of the year.  Is it a comedy?  Kind of.  Is it a drama.  Yes and No.  Is it an adventure?  Sort of.  Is it a love story?  Absolutely, but not the kind you are accustomed to.  

Lost in Translation follows the week-long relationship between two emotionally lost Americans, a young twenty something girl and a formerly famous fifty something movie actor, who are staying at the same hotel in Japan.  Bob is there to collect a couple million dollars for endorsing a whiskey.  Charlotte thought it would be fun to accompany her young hipster photographer husband to Tokyo but soon found herself abandoned and alone in a strange hotel room in a foreign land.  Both are troubled by, among other things, the inability to sleep.  The two insomniacs meet after noticing each other in the hotel lounge and begin a friendship that is at first out of desperation for the familiarity of something "American."  After they get to know each other, as well as strangers of such vast differences in age, occupation and experience can, they come to realize that they are in the same place spiritually.  They are two souls caught in an aimless current allowing themselves to drift without reason or direction.  

The relationship between Bob and Charlotte is a focal point but the backdrop of Tokyo is the third character of the film.  The absolute alien culture of Japan is a never ending source of fascination.  It is very much like, and at the same time nothing at all like, America.  The strip clubs, karaoke bars and arcades that Bob and Charlotte breeze through on their late night adventures resonate on a totally different frequency than their American counterparts.   Yet it is in these places and through these experiences that Bob and Charlotte are able to find in each other the meaning that they are looking for. 

Japan, with its non stop buzz of noise and seizure inducing light shows of advertisements, does everything it can to cheer the senses.  It's as if the country itself is trying hard to overcome a crippling despair.  To find something that is missing.  Bob and Charlotte have found in each other a temporary companionship that goes far deeper than the superficiality of their surroundings.   There is no sexual undercurrent.  It's beyond that.  It is the essence of love and affection.  It is a pure friendship.

Bill Murray is outstanding.  He has become a national treasure.  In Bob Harris we see the character that he has been creeping closer and closer to with his roles in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.  Although she has been in other films I was not familiar with Scarlett Johansson.  As Charlotte, she is excellent.  As she sits in the window of her hotel staring out over the city skyline she perfectly embodies the directionless uncertainty and perhaps fear that tends to occupy us before we begin our adult life.  Just as Murray so expertly portrays the misgivings and regret that may be felt once that adult life has been lived. 

This review is unfortunately making the movie seem like a horrible downer but it's not that at all.  It is a comedy and has some wonderfully funny and sweet moments.  It also has a perfect ending.  With a whisper Bob tells Charlotte something that we are not allowed to hear.  I have no idea what he says but both he and Charlotte are happier once it is said.  They both still have to go back to their imperfect lives but you are left with the feeling that their hope has been restored and for a moment they glimpsed the meaning that they were looking for.