Rated R - Running Time: 1:45 - Released 10/3/03

In the world of the performing arts, there are some whose genius lies more in the creation than the delivery. For instance, neither Bob Dylan nor Carole King are very good singers, but they are well-known as two of the greatest songwriters in pop history. Perhaps the same disparity exists in Sofia Coppola, the daughter of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, whose acting was one of the main liabilities of his The Godfather Part III. But whatever Ms. Coppola may lack in acting ability she more than makes up for in writing/directing talent. After her well-received 1999 directing debut The Virgin Suicides, she truly comes into her own with Lost In Translation, a thoughtful, touching, sad but somehow uplifting movie which gets to the heart of the American sense of pampered discontentment, of all the lonely people not wanting for anything but still wanting something, unfulfilled and frustrated, desperate for some meaning that can’t be named. How could a 32-year old Hollywood heiress write so eloquently on such a subject?

Set entirely in Japan, Lost In Translation tells the story of a pair of out-of-place Americans (Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson) who find each other and make their week, and their lives, bearable, simply by being together. But more than simply the relationship between these two (who both give stunningly beautiful performances), the film shows us the most touching little moments of behavior, the most telling little bits of human nature, and somehow makes us feel as if we are living them ourselves. Coppola’s camera floats, rises, sinks, gets to the core of each scene, with angles and movements that do not seem deliberate but rather just flow to the right moment, the right perspective, every time. Word has it the director achieved this style by traveling to Tokyo by herself and taking photographs, and then re-creating these pictures on film within the framework of her story. In addition to this interesting method of cinematic design, she also obviously knows what is needed to draw good performances out of her actors. Murray and Johansson are so comfortable, they are able to read her lines with effortless candor—although there was apparently a good deal of ad-libbed material between the two. As a result of Coppola’s technique, and that of cinematographer Lance Accord (Adaptation), we are shown just what we need to see to understand, to feel these people, without any sense of overstatement.

Bob Harris (Murray) is a jaded, aging movie star just beyond his peak years, who is still famous enough to be recognized but not to be asked to do any more movies. Having long since traded his fast-paced Hollywood lifestyle for a wife and family, he’s now in his 50’s, and while still an attractive man, is reduced to doing commercials for a Japanese whiskey company to pay the bills, working with a director and production crew whose instructions he doesn’t understand. When he arrives in Tokyo, he thinks he’ll just be there for a few days, but he gets held over when a prestigious Japanese photographer offers to work with him, and his agent lets him know this is not an opportunity to pass up. Soon his stay is extended to a week, and even though his company has paid for his lodgings in the opulent Tokyo Ramada, he feels like a prisoner, suffering from insomnia, wishing to go home and yet ambivalent about his uneventful but comfortable life, where his most important duties include going to his kids’ ballet recitals and birthday parties, and deciding what color carpet to put in his new den. Having once been the toast of Hollywood, Bob has finally settled into a weary sense of wistfulness regarding what his life is and could have been.

A few floors up, we have Charlotte (Johansson), a young woman in her 20's with a philosophy degree, who hoped this trip would help her with her conflicted feelings about religion, career, her place in the world, and her 2-year-old marriage. Her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is a publicity photographer assigned to shoot a Tokyo band, and although he shows perfunctory affection for her, he doesn’t seem to mind all the attention he gets from his clients, especially a sexy young American movie star (Anna Faris) who also happens to be in town. When he is called away for a few days to a remote location, Charlotte is stranded in the beautiful, huge high-rise hotel, another prisoner in paradise, with nothing to do but watch Japanese TV and listen to her self-help CD about how to search for one’s soul.

So here are these two people, both American foreigners, both wishing they didn’t have to be there, both lost not only in the city but in their lives, their professions, their understanding of purpose...and they see in each other what exists in their own souls. At first it’s just a smile in the elevator or a few words in the bar, but when they keep running into each other, they strike up a friendship. She invites him to a party she doesn’t really want to go to, they have lunch together, they sit up late and talk while watching badly dubbed movies, and what began as a simple friendly acquaintance evolves into a connection more meaningful than either of them could have expected. A kind of love emerges between two people who obviously have no future together; a bond solidifies with both parties knowing it must be broken in just a few days.

This movie doesn’t even really have a story, so how can it be so moving, so indescribably profound? Although it follows our two characters around, together and apart, through Buddhist temples, strip bars, and even a bomb threat, it’s really not so much about events as a mood, a feeling we get from watching them interact, with each other and with other people. Something exists here which can’t be described, something is indeed lost in translation—Coppola somehow gets to the essence of human wanting with an amazing efficiency of style, and in so doing proves that her father’s ability to create art on film has passed to her unblemished. Sofia Coppola is my new hero. I hereby apologize for everything I said about her after Godfather III. *****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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