Lost in Translation

“Brilliantly encapsulates those amazing times when two mismatched people, brought together by unusual circumstances, make a connection that might not last, but leaves an indelible impression on each of them. Situations like those, though rare, are strange and wonderful things. Bittersweet and beautiful, Lost in Translation is strange and wonderful, too.”


Big in Japan

Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannsson and the city of Tokyo deliver tour de force performances in Lost in Translation

Sweet, sublime and a little subversive, director Sofia Coppola’s sophomore effort, Lost in Translation, is as dreamily transporting as cinema can be. Watching it is the closest you may ever get to an out-of-body experience.

A loving look at the exotic beauty – and occasional oddity – of Japanese culture as viewed through American eyes, Lost in Translation is like something a master sushi chef might have conjured: a minimalistic masterpiece that’s utterly exquisite, deceptively delicate, and indescribably satisfying. Small and subtle, it garners nonstop laughs and moments of heartbreaking poignancy (often simultaneously) thanks to a script full of keen observation, and, more importantly, stellar performances from its stars, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Murray plays Bob Harris, a fading American actor who derives much of his current income from endorsing products overseas, and has just arrived in Tokyo to shill for a brand of Japanese whiskey. Johansson is Charlotte, an aimless newlywed and philosophy graduate who has accompanied her celebrity photographer-husband (Giovanni Ribisi) on a business trip.

Both Bob and Charlotte suffer from an unexpressed and indefinable sense of discontent, a feeling heightened by the completely foreign surroundings in which they find themselves.

A severe case of jet lag brings the mismatched pair together, but only in due time. Coppola, who also wrote the script, doesn’t rush the action, choosing instead a meandering pace that firmly establishes both characters by depicting them at length in their individual environments.

For Bob, that means a lot of painfully forced banter with his Japanese sponsors, a soul-killing experience on the set of a photo shoot, and a harrowing encounter with a well meaning but unwanted Japanese pro-dom hooker (a sidesplitting scene that alone is worth the price of admission). During this time, we learn that Bob has begun to question the state of both his marriage and his career, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with both.

Meanwhile, Charlotte spends her first few days in Tokyo trying vainly to introduce an element of significance into her life. When her attempts to connect with her husband on more than a superficial level fail, she looks to Japanese customs for an injection of substance, hoping even a course in traditional flower arranging might quell the growing sense of emptiness inside.

After crossing paths repeatedly in their luxury hotel, Bob and Charlotte finally connect in the bar one night, both of them unable to sleep. After only a few moments of shared bemusement with their decidedly quirky surroundings, the two forge an unlikely alliance. Neither understands at the time just how intense their friendship will quickly become.

Suddenly rejuvenated, the two embark on a weeklong, madcap adventure that takes them through the wondrous environs of their host city. With their body clocks still operating on American time, they carouse at all night karaoke bars, underground strip clubs, and frenetic 24-hour video game parlors, all of which burst from the screen like a sort of through-the-looking-glass, neon playground.

It’s never clear through all this just how far the relationship between Bob and Charlotte will go. Lying in bed watching old black-and-white movies together, the two seem headed for physical intimacy. But Coppola holds back, drastically increasing the tension by having them engage in a bout of intense emotional confession instead.

None of this comes across as heavy-handed or forced, however; a credit to Coppola’s skills and to those of her performers. Murray, at his deadpan best, brilliantly conveys both humor and pathos, using, for the most part, only his doleful eyes and a gently sarcastic tone. He wisely reigns in the broader aspects of his comic persona, adopting a subtle demeanor that perfectly suits the fragile story. His incredibly nuanced turn is nothing short of genius.

Johansson, too, delivers a restrained and richly layered performance. Although hers is the less flashy role, she nonetheless manages to fully demonstrate her character’s somber disposition, as well as the wry sense of humor hidden underneath.

A third vital character in this love letter to the East is the city of Tokyo itself, and it “performs” brilliantly, creating a perfectly magical backdrop against which this enchanting and affecting story unfolds. Coppola’s fondness for Tokyo is abundantly evident in big ways and small, from the lush cinematography she employs to bring it to vivid cinematic life, to the absurd and minute details about the city she incorporates into almost every scene.

Although Coppola keeps us guessing as to the eventual outcome, the fun here is definitely in Bob and Charlotte’s giddy and enlightening journey; though brief, it’s truly transformational. Her remarkable tale brilliantly encapsulates those amazing times when two mismatched people, brought together by unusual circumstances, make a connection that might not last, but leaves an indelible impression on each of them. Situations like those, though rare, are strange and wonderful things. Bittersweet and beautiful, Lost in Translation is strange and wonderful, too.