Should I Watch..? 'Lost in Translation'
What's the big deal?
Lost In Translation is a romantic comedy-drama film released in 2003 and was the second feature-length film written and directed by Sophia Coppola. The film stars Bill Murray as a washed-up actor who encounters a young woman experiencing similar feelings of loneliness as him while he's shooting a whiskey commercial in Tokyo. The film also stars Scarlett Johansson, Anna Faris and Giovanni Ribisi and was a huge success, earning critical plaudits as well as global takings of more than $119 million. Now regarded as one of the best films of the Noughties, the film proved to be Johansson's break-through onto the A-list as well as reviving Murray's film career which had shown signs of slowing down. However, the film has been criticised in some quarters for being too slow and obscure and the ending has also been criticised for not resolving the film's narrative.
What's it about?
Aging movie star Bob Harris arrives in Tokyo to shoot a TV commercial for Suntory whiskey. Also staying at his hotel is Charlotte, a young woman left to her own devices by her enthusiastic new husband John who is working as a celebrity photographer in the city. As the days and nights pass, Bob finds himself increasingly isolated amid the bright lights of the city and even more so when working with the Japanese crew behind his advertising campaign. All Bob wants to do is go home to his wife until his eyes meet Charlotte's across the hotel bar.
Sharing the same feelings of loneliness, the pair of them begin spending more time together and slowly venture out into the city to see what lies waiting for them. But gradually, they slowly realise that they are beginning to fall for each other. Will Bob succumb to temptation, will Charlotte start an affair to get back at her husband and will either of them ever find what they are looking for?
Hotel jazz singer
François Du Bois
Release Date (UK)
9th January, 2004
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Best Original Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Leading Actor (Murray), Best Director
What's to like?
It's easy to forget how good Coppola's screenplay is when Murray and Johansson are as good as they are in Lost In Translation. Despite the age-gap and gender difference, Charlotte and Bob are in the exact same place spiritually - confused by their surroundings and plagued by feelings of loneliness, they find and bring out the best out of each other. Throughout the movie, you're on tenterhooks to see whether they will actually get together because that's exactly what we've come to expect from Hollywood. But the film is happy to be something very different and is full of scenes where the characters show exactly what they're going through without mentioning a single word.
Murray, usually associated with more comedic roles, delivers the performance of a lifetime as Bob and yes, he still finds the time to engage on straight-up funny scenes such as at the gym or with the "Premium Fantasy Woman" whose grasp of English isn't the best. But when he's not being a clown, his internal conflict is etched into every craggy facial feature he possesses and his quiet nobility is refreshing to see. But Johansson, who was just 17 at the time of shooting, brings an unexpected maturity to the role of Charlotte who finds herself questioning her own choices. As for the ending, which I won't go into here, I personally loved it - not knowing how things ended makes you think for yourself and when was the last time you saw a film that performed that trick? Lastly, I really enjoyed the cinematography as the film delves deep into Tokyo's hectic lifestyle. I've always wanted to go and watching this film made me want to even more - it almost feels like a travelogue, turning the city into its own, enigmatic and energising character.
- Coppola has claimed that one of the film's minor roles was partly inspired by her first husband, director Spike Jonze. Given that Jonze was in Japan during their marriage with the other Jackass cast shooting their movie, it's probable that the character she's referring to is John, Charlotte's husband.
- Coppola wrote the role of Bob specifically for Bill Murray and later said she wouldn't have made the film if he'd turned it down. Murray only agreed to appear via verbal confirmation and Coppola wasn't sure if he'd show up to shoot. Luckily, he turned up on day one.
- When Charlotte rides on the Tokyo subway, she sees a man reading a comic called "Ghost In The Shell". Johansson would later star in the Hollywood remake of Ghost In The Shell in 2017.
What's not to like?
My Better Half is one of the film's many detractors who claim that the film is boring as nothing really happens on screen. I remember hearing others say at the time that the film was a victim of over-hype, another art-house effort that only appeals to snarky critics. Sure enough, the film is bereft of any meaningful action in the traditional sense - Bob and Charlotte head out to video arcades, karaoke bars and brightly-lit TV studios where little makes sense but they never seem to do much other than have a little fun. The film's narrative runs purely in dialogue and, more often than not, in facial expressions. This is minimalism brought into the 21st century and it sadly makes the film inaccessible to many viewers.
But for viewers who understand what the characters are going through, the film is a tortured look at two people who know what they could do but aren't sure whether they should. And all of this pain is evident through Murray and Johansson's performances - yes, it's sometimes difficult to watch a film that doesn't make it easy or plays fast-and-loose with expectations but that's what I like most about Lost In Translation. It makes you think and empathise with the characters and you really do. Which makes that controversial ending even better.
Should I watch it?
Lost In Translation is not for everybody but for viewers with enough world experience or still trying to find their place in the world, the film is a sublime voyage of discovery. Murray has never been better and Johansson shows us once again that she is a much better actress than many of her films suggest. See the film with an open mind and you won't be disappointed.
Great For: Murray & Johansson's career, Tokyo tourism board, old-fashioned romantics, critics
Not So Great For: Japanese viewers, Spike Jonze, anyone expecting a typical Hollywood romance film
What else should I watch?
Declaring Murray's performance here as the best of his career seems counter-intuitive to me, given his legendary appearance in one of my favourite films of all time. His turn as grumpy weatherman Phil Connors in Groundhog Day is endlessly funny as well as tragic as he realises he's cursed to live the same day over and over again. But more than that, the film poses interesting philosophical questions that might go over the heads of many viewers because they're laughing too much. It remains a quality film that, ironically perhaps, I can watch again and again.
Coppola's work often deals with themes of isolation, loneliness and internal conflicts. Her debut feature The Virgin Suicides deals with the impact of adolescence and isolation on five girls traumatised after the suicide attempt of the youngest daughter while her later film Somewhere also looks at themes of adult responsibility and, interestingly, father-daughter dynamics (Coppola being the daughter of Francis Ford-Coppola, obviously). Thankfully, Lost In Translation isn't the only film dealing with a mid-life crisis - I also enjoyed Alexander Payne's brilliant Sideways and Steve Martin's last great performance in Father Of The Bride.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox