Review: Lost in Translation

2003, USA, Sofia Coppola

No sophomore slump for Sophia Coppola.  Her new film is terrific.

There are movies that entertain you and there are movies that grab a hold of you from the inside and transport or transform you in some way, so that when you leave the theater you’re a little changed in some way. It doesn’t have to be a major “Oh wow!” revelation. It’s usually subtle and sometimes gradual, staying with you over the course of time, as you reflect back on what you saw.  You might learn something new, about another culture, human nature, science, history, whatever. Or, you may learn something new about yourself. You might become emotionally involved with the characters—you recognize yourself or others or the situation that they’re in…or not— and you get picked up and carried along with them through the story.

A good book does the same thing, especially in the aspect of sticking-with-you, reflecting over time.  For me it’s often stronger with books than movies; the characters can seem more real to me in a book than a movie.  There you’re privy to their inner thoughts, which don’t translate well on film, and they look as you’ve imagined them (with the author’s help of course)—they’re not attached to the face of a Hollywood actor or actress, which, no matter how good the acting, can’t convince me that they’re “real” the way a book can.

I digress away from my main point here, which is to praise Lost in Translation which I unexpectedly found to be quite a moving film. (But that’s the best kind of movie experience, isn’t it?  The unexpected surprise of a film.)  The story of two lonely people, out of their element and emotionally separated from their spouses, find each other and strike up a touching and honest friendship.  Okay, so he’s in his fifties and she’s 23. This is not your usual May-December romance.  In fact, some people would say it hardly qualifies as a romance, so quiet and subtly as it progresses.

Others might say it’s not really a comedy either, though I would.  There was more than one time when I was laughing out loud. Bill Murray is hilarious and touching in his role as aging action film star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to cash in on the endorsement of a whisky.  (“Make it Santori time.”) He doesn’t speak the language, isn’t really enjoying the luxury stay in his hotel, and can’t seem to sleep.  Occasional terse phone calls home aren’t a comfort at all.

One night he meets Scarlett Johansson in the hotel bar, a fellow insomniac.  Charlotte is the wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) whose work shooting rock stars keeps him busy and leaves her with lots of time to sit and think.  She knocks around in her hotel room, lounging around in her underwear, knitting, flipping through magazines, and occasionally venturing out to explore the city, teeming with people.  She’s at a cross-roads, unsure of what she wants or who she wants to be.  These kindred spirits come together and in the artificial, sometimes surreal, atmosphere of their hotel and Tokyo nightlife, provide a lifeline to one another.

The third star of the film is really the city itself.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much of this city before in a movie, certainly not in an American one.  Bob and Charlotte need to be in the middle of nowhere, so to speak, cut off by geography and language from the rest of their lives to make the film work.  The unfamiliarity of the surroundings works for the characters and the audience at once.

Director Sofia Coppola demonstrates once again that she’s a director with an interesting career ahead of her, fulfilling the promise made with her debut film Virgin Suicides.  She wrote the script as well, which includes this memorable line, spoken in the film by Murray’s character: “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

Here’s the Gist: A quiet, unique romantic comedy with characters that live beyond the final credits. [***** out of 5]

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One thought on “Review: Lost in Translation

  1. Finally saw this movie, and loved it. In addition to the marvelous points you brought up, I liked the way the film ended. Bill Murray ends up whispering something in Scarlett’s ear, and we can’t hear what he says; and then we get to tag along on the ride to the airport. Both those images were very moving, for reasons I don’t have time to go into. But they were added, unexpected delights of the film, just one more way of finding an unusual, but effective, focus.

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