Finding Lost in Translation
Rob Levy
9/16/2003 9:13:02 PM

There is something cathartic about going to a faraway place, getting lost, meandering and discovering. It is a process that is both invigorating and soul-searching. We’re taken through such poignant processes by Sofia Coppola in her new film, Lost In Translation.

Lost In Translation is a melodramatic film about wandering, searching and connecting. Bill Murray stars as Bob Harris, an American actor in the twilight of his career who comes to Tokyo to record a series of schmaltzy ads for Suntory Whiskey. At the start of the film he is grumpy, bored, tired and completely off kilter. Enter Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, a Californian in Tokyo while her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) is on assignment photographing a pop band. Charlotte is bored, tired, searching and reclusive. She spends a great deal of time in the quiet of her hotel room. Eventually she goes out and explores the city, but it is obvious that she still needs something to jump start her Nipponese adventure. By the time the pictures ends, Charlotte and Bob’s paths have crossed and they are both transformed.

Bob and Charlotte meet in the Hyatt Tokyo bar. They have some basic things in common: They both can't sleep. They both are somewhat confined by their stay in Tokyo and they both are lost. Through a series of encounters and run-ins, they eventually venture off together into the frantic, neon, human congestion of Tokyo.

Bob and Charlotte’s intimate and powerful moments on screen forge the underbelly of Lost In Translation. As they discover the textures of Tokyo, a very intense and rapid fondness forms between the two. They have one of those romances that is unspoken and not necessarily physical. Coppola creates sexual tension between Murray and Johansson that is both fascinating and never quite defined, and left to grow and blossom into an amazing, amorphous thing of its own.

Bill Murray continues the critically-acclaimed roll of dramatic performances he's became famous for of late. In recent years, moviegoers embraced him as a dramatic actor with his excellent turns in Rushmore and Royal Tennenbaums. Now the Second City and SNL alum comes full circle, playing Harris as a docile person in a midlife crisis, gripped with his declining fame, waning marriage and a desire to really find himself.

Despite all the quiescent drama and brooding, we occasionally see Murray slip into more familiar comic skin. His best comedic scenes are when he cheeses it up for the Suntory commercial shoot, cuts loose at a Shubuya karaoke bar and when he delivers crisp, flippant one-liners at the Hyatt bar. Murray really wraps himself up with this character, managing to mix the funny with the sublime. His nuanced performance is just right, creating a Bob Harris who grows beyond his own caricature. He is fun, ironic, silly and tender.

Meanwhile, co-star Scarlett Johansson, holds her own. Charlotte is a quiet, wide eyed, inquisitive girl looking for the right answers. Her idyllic marriage to John has been in the doldrums and her interaction with Bob allows her to have more than just someone to experience the city with. Coppola expertly uses Charlotte for a modest cultural study of Japan itself, and she is beautifully shot walking the streets of Tokyo, traveling on its subways and looking at the city with awe and bewilderment.

Johansson does a terrific job of acting without speaking and her muted performance is breathtaking, with the most powerful emotions portrayed through her eyes and mannerisms, speaking volumes and adding still more depth to her character.

Charlotte, like Bob, is going through a crisis. However, her crisis of youth and uncertainty is at the other end of the fulcrum to Harris semi-senior dilapidation. Johansson at times channels Clare Danes in some of her expressions and wandering, far-off stares, but she is rock solid. This is the performance that is going to put her on the map.

Lost In Translation also realistically and successfully captures the effects of sleep deprivation and being strangers in a strange land vividly. Visually this movie is a feast. Like Tokyo, it is busy, with a lot going on. Director of Photography, Lance Acord, has created a rich and encapsulating view, incorporating the weirdness (through American eyes) of Japanese pop culture on film. Sofia Coppola nails down the American celebrity experience of appearing on all sorts of wacky Japanese TV commercials. Furthermore, Coppola exploits the genuine hokeyness of Japanese variety shows by having Bob appear in one with the "Japanese Johnny Carson." She also lenses some of the vast cultural rifts between American and Japanese culture.

There are many reasons why Lost In Translation is a great movie. It is tense, ironic quiet, brooding and fraught with reflection. It's a film about meeting someone fleetingly who will change your life indubitably.

However, it is not a film for everyone. While it is a marvelous production, this is a film that takes its time getting going. This may alienate more impatient-natured viewers. It's a fresh, solid, well-written feature with marvelous acting and grandiose scenic Japanese eye candy.

Lost In Translation fires on all cylinders. Besides the skillful direction and cinematography, it has a great editing, a solid score by Kevin Shields, with help from Death In Vegas, Squarepusher, Phoenix, My Bloody Valentine, Air, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and more. And if you do pick up the soundtrack[On Emperor Norton Records], there’s a hidden track of Bill Murray’s karaoke version of "More Than This" –one of the best and most heartbreaking scenes from the movie.

One of the best films of the year.


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