Lost in Translation
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in One Category!
Director: Sofia Coppola. Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Catherine Lambert, Akiko Takeshita, Yutaka Tadokoro, Nao Asuka, Tetsuro Naka, Fumihiro Hayashi. Screenplay: Sofia Coppola.

Having reached the last quarter of the year with no major revelations at the cinema, popular audiences are waiting for something more than Johnny Depp in a tri-cornered hat to get excited about. The arthouse audience is just as hungry, after a full raft of good-but-not-great work from major filmmakers (Cronenberg's Spider, Denis' Friday Night, Ozon's Swimming Pool) and a smattering of lightweight crossover hits from amiable newcomers (Bend It Like Beckham, Whale Rider). I suppose it was inevitable that some unlucky film would get ringered in the early autumn as The Hot New Thing, The One That Will Save The Medium. We have all been waiting too long.

Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which rides into Ithaca after a heavenly reception at Venice and a month of booming business in bigger cities, shouldered this burden throughout the month of September. It's been getting a reprieve of late from Clint Eastwood's much vaunted Mystic River (opening here next Wednesday), which is probably a good break for Coppola. Even the most ardent fans of Lost in Translation have been fretting that the surge of rapturous publicity, both for the film itself and its two driving performances, would prime prospective audiences beyond any reasonable expectations and induce an unfair backlash. More specifically, the fear was that a slight tale like this one—which conveys the sudden, semi-romantic connection, forged tellingly far from home, between a disillusioned and disappointed superstar actor and an unhappy young woman who follows her photographer husband on his globetrotting assignments—is too miniature in scope and too subtle in its flavors to suit the restive crowds who've been clamoring for better movies.

The terms of this whole discussion among Lost in Translation's defenders and protectors has been extremely interesting to me, marked by both exuberant claims and disguised denials. It is true that Coppola has made a lovely, evocative, and piquantly comic film, but frankly, if Lost in Translation needs saving, I think it's from the hyperbolic praise that its biggest fans are starting to smother it with. The real movie is starting to get lost beneath all the encomiums, and though I enjoyed the film, the points in its favor almost don't need repeating. As you might have heard, Bill Murray is quite wonderful as Bob Harris, the American action hero who has sheepishly flown to Tokyo to a) score some easy bucks endorsing a Japanese whiskey, and b) buy some time away from his marriage, which after more than twenty years has started to choke him. These priorities are not necessarily listed in order, and in any case they are united by Bob's willingness to do something distasteful (hawk an unknown product, immerse himself in a culture that mystifies him) because he likes the bottom line (cash, drink, privacy). Murray, with an efficiency that his character might well admire, has compartmentalized all of these attributes in a full-bodied performance that is simultaneously simple and complicated. The loneliness is all in his slouch; the constant bewilderment radiates from his brow; the possibility that his luck and his mood might turn is telegraphed in his optimistically open posture; the likelihood that they won't is the sad truth in his tired eyes.

It's odd that we're still learning the nuances and possibilities in Murray's one-of-a-kind face after three decades of fame, but I doubt this is all our fault. One unpredictable reason for this surprise rejuvenation is that Murray, we've discovered, works best with younger actors. His scenes with Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, with Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber in Hamlet, and with Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums were all superior to his exchanges with older or peer-level actors in the same movies. He seems to pay a profound, sustained attention to young people, who tend in turn to extract a formidable melancholy from Murray which is different entirely from the deadpan bemusement and scruffy boredom of his signature comedies.

All of this helps immeasurably in Lost in Translation. For one thing, Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte very much needs attention, in both the poignant and the pejorative sense. Murray's patient regard nourishes Charlotte, and it also nourishes Johansson, a tremendously interesting and likably serious presence who is not yet a fully resourceful actress. Playing a character five years older than she is, Johansson gets the longing and the ceaseless self-evaluation of her character—the part of Charlotte which not only watches everyone and everything closely (her husband, her hotel room, a Japanese wedding, a floral arrangement) but which hopes, achingly so, that the secret which will unlock and dispel her sadness might lie around any given corner. Meeting and, later, departing from Murray's Bob are the two biggest corners Charlotte turns in this movie, and with Murray's generous and unpredictably elegant performance to guide her, these are the two scenes in which Johansson's own work achieves full bloom. Other purported elements of Charlotte's personality, though—the mean streak about which we hear a few rumors, the glimmer of any connection to her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), the vaguest notion of why she opted for marriage at such a young age, the residue of her Yale education in philosophy—are all missing from Johansson's performance, and it is mystifying why Coppola bothered to include some of these ill-fitting and dramatically dead-ended details to begin with. (The same could be said of making Bob Harris a blow-'em-up action hero: the one kind of star charisma that Murray cannot muster, and a jarringly wrong note in the movie's basic outline.)

Above and beyond all this, however, the reason that Charlotte needs Murray (not Bob, but Bill Murray as Bob) is that Coppola has written this semi-autobiographical role rather thinly. There really isn't much to Charlotte, and while that statement is on the one hand the essential truth of the character—neither Bob nor Charlotte knows who they are, but she knows even less than he does—on the other hand, there is very, very little in Charlotte to suggest why Bob takes an interest in her, or, even more pronouncedly, why the movie does. Murray's warm, intense concentration covers over an absence of almost anything to concentrate on. A great deal of the glowing press about Lost in Translation has implied, or stated outright, that Bob and Charlotte are "soulmates." This strikes me as a wildly romantic reading of a movie that is already quite romantic, and its excesses ring out even more loudly on Charlotte's end. Does Bob take a shine to her, and continue spending time with her, because she reminds him of his own children? Maybe, though the script makes clear that Bob doesn't need this kind of reminding; Coppola has written him a lovely speech about his son and daughter, which Murray delivers gorgeously. Does Charlotte remind Bob of himself? Maybe, but only in the sense that she's feeling as stuck and melancholy already, before much of life has happened to her, as Bob is feeling after a few decades of amassed experience. It is unlikely that he became a world-famous marquee actor from being as morose and directionless as Charlotte manifestly is, at least during the time we meet her.

I am not blaming Charlotte for being adrift, and I didn't feel any ill will toward the character—but I must admit I was mystified, upon exiting the theater, what I was supposed to make of her. I was thrilled that she was neither a sexpot nor a sage in disguise, but I thought she might have more specific or varied activities than staring, in repeated cross-cuts, out of her various hotel windows. More than that, I felt and still feel that Lost in Translation doesn't have much to say about the kind of drift that Charlotte is in, without casting it, only semi-convincingly, as a metaphor for the transitory, estranging experience of being in a foreign country. The shimmering, ethereal luminosity and the constant, almost Chagall-ish collage of images and sounds that comprise the film's vision of Tokyo are so clearly reflective of Charlotte's mood that much of the film registers as a kind of sensory record of her porous and fragile internal state. By contrast, Bob's experience of Japan emphasizes the concrete difficulties of communication and the comic dismay that so easily arises from those difficulties. This approach does yield some major rewards, and on the level of form, the movie succeeds beautifully at blending these two Japans as the characters develop their own connection. The second half of the movie braids its visual poetry with its situational humor (in the karaoke booths, the strip club, etc.), which is part of why Bob and Charlotte's friendship seems like more than the anecdote it is. As they become acquainted, however temporarily, their worlds literally merge; this is a pleasant conceit and, for cinematographer Lance Acord, an artistic coup.

The downside is that Tokyo is never much more than a metaphor in this movie; there is an implication that foreign cities exist so that hyper-privileged Americans like Bob the megastar and Charlotte the Yale grad can have a special environment for their out-of-time epiphanies. Ironically, while Bob and Charlotte worry that they will ever carve free-standing identities for themselves, away from the demands and contingencies of other people, the film is forever making Tokyo fully contingent on them, abstracting and, I would say, miniaturizing the city into a mirror of their psyches. There is little sense, as there is in, say, the Venice of David Lean's Summertime or the Vienna of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, that the city and its residents are tangible places and people among which the characters do indeed have affecting, intimate experiences. That Coppola casts several Japanese characters as borderline buffoons (a commercial director, a female escort, a stills photographer, a television host) in cleverly conceived but culturally dubious punchline scenes doesn't quite derail the film, but nor does it help relieve the solipsistic fascination with Bob and Charlotte. Linklater, more than Lean, held his similar movie in check by gently insinuating some affectionate but ironic distance; the purple flourishes of the dialogue and the underlying tension of the scenario (is Jesse just trying to bed Céline?) winked at the smallness and immaturity of their encounter without at all diminishing the purity of its energy or the sincerity of the participants' emotions.

Coppola isn't nearly this gingerly in her approach. If her Japanese supporting cast seems a little slapsticky, the peripheral Americans don't do much better. Ribisi, who should never be allowed to improvise (that is, if he should be allowed to act at all), is clammy and totally uninteresting. Anna Faris has a blast caricaturing a blonde, broad-mouthed, gypsy-blouse-wearing U.S.A. starlet who isn't, uh, based on anyone in particular, and certainly not Cameron Diaz; it's a funny but nasty bit of mimickry from the Scary Movie vet. There's also a lounge singer (Catherine Lambert) who infuses untoward faux-depth into her torchy ballads night after night in the hotel bar, and who continues to hum them after Bob has bedded her in a moment of erotic weakness, and there are a couple of faxes, Fed Exes, and phone calls from Bob's wife, Lydia. We never see her face, but we see her favorite carpet samples, which the film rather mockingly implies is pretty much the same thing.

In short, Coppola insulates her depiction of Bob and Charlotte as earnest, delicate souls by making everyone else look pretty foolish. This strategy doesn't violate any formal rules, since she has obviously chosen to hew to Bob's and Charlotte's points of view; but still, this is not the tactic of an especially mature or capacious spirit. In fact, it hedges the film's bets considerably. Rather than simply background the other characters, Coppola actually foregrounds their cartoonish qualities and then wipes her hands of them. Maybe Lost in Translation isn't the story of a special, soulful communion after all but the story of a desperate pair thrown into friendship because everyone else in the universe is a stooge or a harpy. That, too, is a viable premise for a film, and maybe even for this film, but it doesn't seem to fit Acord's images, Sarah Flack's editing rhythms, or Coppola's own ending, all of which imply that a softer, more serene emotion should lie at the heart of this movie. And if coarsening the other characterizations does reflect the perspectives of Bob and Charlotte, then the question has to be asked, what mysterious factor exempts Charlotte from Bob's growing cynicism, or Bob from Charlotte's latent scorn? Her beauty, and his fame?

These seem like bad answers, and I liked the movie too much and took its evident ambitions too seriously to accept such dour surmises. Still, the movie never furnishes better ones, except that "soulmate" hypothesis. But if Bob and Charlotte really are soulmates, would they only have recognized this fact in Tokyo? Conversely, if we can assume that their bond never would have arisen in a less liminal, less transitory moment, how much stock can we put in the "soulmate" idea—enough to warrant the heavily sentimental (but nonetheless moving) double-farewell at the end?

Ultimately, I believe that Lost in Translation wants to be a love-letter to contemporary Tokyo and a love-letter to the totally unique connections that human beings make with each other when they feel disconnected from the things that normally frame their lives. I wonder if these goals really lend themselves to occupying the same movie—the specificity of Tokyo is vital to the first, and rather arbitrary (at best) to the second. If Coppola did believe she could join these two ideas, I wonder why she saddled her three-character recipe (Tokyo, Bob, Charlotte) with a handful of secondary figures she clearly isn't interested in: all this does, from my end, is permit some momentary chuckles and superficial contexts at the considerable expense of clouding the movie's core and intermittently poisoning its tone. Then again, I realize that, pared down to its basic impulses, Coppola's movie sounds a lot like Denis' Friday Night, which was more rigorous in its boundaries, comparable in its technical prowess, but a colder and not particularly illuminating work which I am not eager to see cloned.

So what am I asking of Lost in Translation, beyond wishing it were a little more like some of the films it reminds me of (Before Sunrise, In the Mood for Love, the last sequence of Happy Together)? The more I reflect on it, the more Lost in Translation seems perfectly consistent with Coppola's earlier film, The Virgin Suicides, another picture in which the opaque mysteries of being a young woman were virtually taken as a given. True, her talents at synthesizing visual, spatial, and sonic impressions have already evolved from that first effort. Still, though, I think I will warm more to Coppola's pictures when she complicates this approach to her women, which seems a little too wispy and too reverent of that wispiness, and is further betrayed by a reverse tendency to make almost every other style of being in the world seem crude, silly, or negligible. The Virgin Suicides evoked a poignant but adolescent Idea of Girlhood; Lost in Translation manages to construct one compelling characterization alongside another Idea of Girlhood before the rest of the movie slides into its uneasy blend of romanticism and closet misanthropy. This is progress, and it's worth seeing—but I am reminded of Charlotte's own claim in the movie that all girls pass through a stage of wanting to be a photographer, usually leading to lots of pictures of their own feet. Coppola composes ravishing images of her feet, but at a certain level, that's all they are; even her cityscapes might be metaphors for her feet. When she really finds her feet, I have a sense that we'll know it. I don't think it's quite happened, but I am eager to see her try again. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Sofia Coppola
Best Actor: Bill Murray
Best Original Screenplay: Sofia Coppola

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Sofia Coppola
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Scarlett Johansson
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Bill Murray
Best Director: Sofia Coppola

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Picture; Best Director (Coppola); Best Actor (Murray); Best Screenplay (Coppola)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director; Best Actor (Murray)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Murray)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Murray)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Director; Best Actress (Johansson); Best Actor (Murray)
National Board of Review: Special Achievement Award (Coppola)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actress (Johansson); Best Actor (Murray); Best Film Editing (Sarah Flack)
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Foreign Language Film
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy); Best Actor, Musical/Comedy (Murray); Best Original Screenplay

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