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Lost in Translation

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  • Noel Vera
    Found in transit Noel Vera Sofia Coppola s Lost in Translation is on the surface a not-quite love story about two fairly well-off people in a swanky Japanese
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2004
      Found in transit

      Noel Vera

      Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" is on the surface a not-quite
      love story about two fairly well-off people in a swanky Japanese
      hotel (I can't believe the size of their suites--most hotel rooms in
      Tokyo are about the size of a van, while their bathrooms are only a
      little larger than phone booths). It has a sumptuousness and glossy
      finish and fairly well-known cast (Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson,
      with Giovanni Ribisi somewhere in the sidelines) that perhaps only
      the daughter of a major filmmaker might be able to assemble--and for
      only her second, independently produced feature.

      But there is a place in this world, I think, for well-funded indie
      pictures about alienated rich folks. Coppola has mentioned in
      interviews how her love of Tokyo inspired her to make the movie, and
      she gets the stranger-in-a-strange-land part of it right--the
      hermetically sealed airlessness of the hotel rooms, the anonymous,
      slightly futuristic d├ęcor, the smilingly uncomprehending service. I'm
      guessing that she's drawing on her early experience with the city--
      that she's known it better since then and its endlessly fascinating
      mix of ancient culture and cutting-edge modernity, of medieval grace
      and futuristic energy--but that she's confining the story to Tokyo as
      seen by two strangers for the first time.

      The story is as simple as can be. Bill Murray is Bob Harris, a well-
      known Hollywood actor in Tokyo to do commercials for Suntory whisky
      (it's a practice that's been going on for some time; even Arnold
      Schwarzenegger has done a few spots). He's middle-aged, feeling a
      little lost, a little depressed at how his life and career and
      marriage are going. Dinky little Japanese surround him at all sides,
      talking either gibberish, or gibberish meant to pass for English;
      occasionally, his wife calls to torment him about wallpaper patterns

      He meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the 25-year-old wife of John
      (Giovanni Ribisi) a successful photographer on a photo shoot in
      Tokyo. John parks her in the hotel because he has no real use for her
      on his shoots, and Charlotte spends her time touring the city during
      the day, haunting the hotel bar during the night.

      Something clicks between Bob and Charlotte; it isn't very well-
      defined, and it shows Coppola's skill and sensitivity as a
      storyteller that she doesn't try and define it--that she leaves it to
      us to guess exactly what's happening. It's also a sign of her skill
      as a storyteller that she is able to suggest they aren't sure what's
      happening either--that Bob and Charlotte are too numbed and woozy and
      depressed to realize that, somewhere along the way, they've fetched
      up and bumped into each other, and are bobbing around with each other
      for company.

      Along the way Coppola introduces characters that are like signposts,
      marking the progress, as it were, of their wanderings to and from
      each other. Aside from husband John and his indifference, there's
      Anna Faris as Kelly, a ditzy starlet reportedly based on Cameron
      Diaz; and Catherine Lambert as a lounge singer, singing perennial
      favorites with the kind of meaningless skill that causes eyes to
      glaze over.

      Mention I suppose must be made of the perceived racism of the picture-
      -in the way it shows the Japanese as either buffoons or weirdos. I
      understand and sympathize, but this is Japan as seen through the eyes
      of strangers, and, in the case of Bob, of a stranger sensitive enough
      to recognize what he has going on with a young girl, but not
      sensitive enough to realize there's more to Japan than manhandling
      prostitutes (maybe one of the movie's more off-key jokes) and
      screaming TV hosts. Perhaps it's a failing on the part of Coppola
      that she doesn't make this clear enough--that we should be laughing
      at the way Bob hates the strangeness of Tokyo and not at the way
      Tokyo is presented. But I can't see how this can be done without
      making the movie too explicit.

      Johansson is good, perhaps remarkable in the way she is able to give
      all kinds of shadings to her character in a quiet, understated
      manner, and it may just be me, but I keep seeing the director in her
      character, some sense that this movie, or at least Charlotte, is
      autobiographical.

      "Lost," however, would remain a merely interesting, well-made oddity
      if it weren't for Murray's lovely performance as Bob--Bob doesn't
      seem autobiographical at all, and I'd almost credit Murray as co-
      writer and even co-director for coming up with and ad-libbing the
      lines to (Murray is famous for having come up with his own (and the
      movie's funniest) lines in "Tootsie") the kind of quietly complex
      portrait of middle-aged angst that he does here.

      Murray has been something of an ill-kept secret in Hollywood;
      everyone knows his comedies, from "Stripes" to "Ghostbusters," the
      way his humor springs out of the premise that he's smarter and
      cannier than anyone else in the movie--often smarter and cannier, in
      fact, than the movie itself. Not as many (or at least, not as many
      before this picture came out) know about his more substantial efforts-
      -his tired millionaire with a high school student for a romantic
      rival in "Rushmore," or his cynical news broadcaster in the
      wonderful "Groundhog Day" (maybe my favorite of all his films). Even
      his egomaniacal bowler with the horrific toupee in "Kingpin" had his
      own interesting oddities, his own special charm that piqued your
      interest, the same time he repelled you.

      With Bob, Murray has the kind of opportunity to shine that he did
      in "Groundhog Day," and Coppola, realizing this, puts him front and
      center. He's always had this superior attitude, this wittier-than-
      thou pose that to his credit never seems tired (maybe because he's
      always been careful to direct his sense of superiority against the
      right kind of targets). That kind of humor comes through in this
      movie, but this time there's a sense of exhaustion, of self-doubt
      creeping in (it's this creeping quality, this idea of a dimly-sensed
      encroaching darkness that makes the role so memorable). Murray still
      plays Bob as a man smarter than everyone around him, but one who's
      also starting to regret his isolation and loneliness, who's maybe
      starting to feel the chill of old age whispering about his ankles,
      and is looking for someone to connect with. Lovely little film, maybe
      not the best thing I've seen in 2003, but one of the better ones.

      (First published in Businessworld, Feb. 27, 2004)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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