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Lost in Translation Review

By Joe Lozito

Dismayed in Japan


I imagine Sofia Coppola has done her fair share of jet-setting. As writer-director of "Lost in Translation", she manages to capture that feeling of lonely sleeplessness that always comes with jet-lagged nights in foreign countries. The hotel becomes your provider, supplying crucial time-passers like saunas, cocktail lounges and, above all, other people who speak your language. It's tough enough to travel around Europe, but the Asian languages are so foreign to Americans that the Far East might as well be another planet.

In "Lost", two characters find themselves in Tokyo for very different reasons: Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an American movie star doing one of those foreign advertisements that movie stars wouldn't be caught dead doing in America, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is stuck waiting for her filmmaker husband (Giovanni Ribisi, amusingly Spike Jonze-ish) to return from a shoot. A bond forms between Bob and Charlotte that defies Hollywood norms; the characters don't jump into bed. Instead, they spend the film being the company that each of them so desperately needs.

"Lost" looks beautiful. Each shot is composed almost as a still-life, and that's where the film errs. Ms. Coppola is so determined to have her characters teeter on the edge of romance that the film begins to meander from one happy flirtation to another until, in an inspired bit, Bob has a dalliance with a lounge singer to add some tension to the proceedings. There are moments when Ms. Coppola's script flirts with wisdom and others which are underwritten, but the movie is at its best when it allows the characters to be themselves lost in their foreign world, like a scene in a hospital waiting room between Bob and an incomprehensible (to a non-Japanese speaker) old man.

Ms. Johansson continues to use her preternaturally smoky voice to good effect, but she has a difficult time creating a full character out of the small strokes in Ms. Coppola's script. It's possible that the character of Charlotte is Ms. Coppola's avatar. Perhaps that's why the script is more reticent to dissect that character. While she doesn't live up to the promise of her performance in 2000's "Ghost World", Ms. Johansson is a naturally captivating actress with more going on under the surface than most of her peers.

But it is Bill Murray who is the revelation in this film. He wears the role of Bob Harris like an old suit. Bob is tired for so many reasons - he's jet-lagged, he can't understand anyone around him, he'd rather be doing some real acting, oh, and his marriage lost its spark long ago. Mr. Murray's face is a study in exhaustion. The pleasantries he exchanges with his Japanese hosts are as scripted as the Whiskey ads he must perform each day. When he finally connects with Charlotte, Mr. Murray lets Bob come alive, but always with the sad knowledge that this is a fleeting moment - one that cannot last and cannot be consummated. This isn't the Bill Murray who was so wonderful in "Groundhog Day" or "Rushmore". This is another step in Mr. Murray's career and one that hopefully gets him the recognition he deserves.

I imagine there's a little of Bob in Ms. Coppola as well. Being the daughter of Francis Ford has its privileges - like making small independent films about two characters in Japan. Luckily, Ms. Coppola has the talent to back it up.

What did you think?

Movie title Lost in Translation
Release year 2003
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Writer-director Sofia Coppola's story of two disaffected Americans stranded in Tokyo (one for business, one for marital obligation) is worth seeing if only for the beautiful photography and Bill Murray's most complete, heartfelt performance to date. The story, which is at times hysterical and insightful, is just a bonus.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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