I’m sure it has happened to us all. You’re sitting on the bus or standing in a store and people start talking in a language that you can’t understand. Even if the conversation is short, you wonder if they’re talking about you. You lick your palms and flatten your hair, give a tug on the old fly to make sure everything is on the up and up, and finally wipe your nose nonchalantly on the top of your sleaze to check for a) stray boogers and b) a bad case of the arm pit stinkies.
Being in the midst of such a conversation where you can neither speak or understand is one of the loneliest ways to experience life. You can clearly hear things are being said, but you’re forced to be an observer. Now imagine what it would be like to stand on the corner of a large city like, say, Tokyo and all you know is English and a couple of fractured Japanese phrases. Loneliness gives way to complete isolation. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation captures such feelings in a way that makes it the most accessible type of poetry. It tells a clear story with a humorous voice, sharp imagery and an eye for nuance.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) was a big action star in the 1970’s. Now he’s on the other side of the Pacific pitching whiskey for a couple million dollars. He can’t sleep at night, his wife keeps sending packages and faxes looking for his opinion on how best to redecorate their home and there’s nobody there to talk to. Recently married, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is staying in the same hotel as Bob. Her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is a photographer for the stars sent to a gig in Japan. Charlotte is left on her own for days on end where she mopes around the sights and listens to tapes on how she can achieve personal happiness. On the surface, she’s fine but like Bob, she really needs someone to talk to. Upon meeting in a bar, Bob and Charlotte start hanging out together and over the course of just a few days develop a deep friendship that helps them escape the feelings of isolation both were suffering from being alone in a big place outside of what they were used to.
A big part of the film’s first half is spent in silence as the routines of Bob and Charlotte are established. Dialogue is replaced by background noise and people speaking in Japanese. This is the poetry of the film that Coppola uses to set up the culturally specific loneliness Bob and Charlotte are coping with and transforms it into something universal. Rather than having the characters confront their isolation directly, they come to the realization through small gestures. In one short scene Bob tees off all on his lonesome with the immense Mt. Fuji sitting in the background. Bob is someone who is small and when you juxtapose him against a mountain, he is even smaller. And although his face is on the television and on billboards, Bob is small in Japan as well. He and Charlotte are but two ants swallowed up amongst flashing neon, towering skyscrapers and all the other ants milling about on the sidewalk. And here lies the heart of Lost in Translation.
Murray is appropriately cast as Bob. Let’s face it, 20 years ago he had much more clout amongst Hollywood’s elite. But over the years films like Larger Than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little dragged him down. But then Murray began to step a little off the beaten path, electing for parts in films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums which started to give him more of an aura of respectability rather than simply a comedy king. Murray comes full circle with Lost in Translation. Even his smallest gestures are funny, especially in the first half. But there’s also a devastating dramatic side to Murray’s performance. On one of the film’s posters he’s shown sitting slouched on a hotel bed wearing his housecoat and slippers with a sad look on his face. Taken directly from the film itself, this single shot captures the heart of Murray’s character. Without a reliance on dialogue, how Bob is portrayed relies largely on how Murray was able to succeed with the small things, such as his expressions and posture. It’s tough not to feel heartbreak for him.
Johansson holds her own as Charlotte. She’s struggling to find out who she is. Although recently wed, she’s already seeing someone else in both her and her husband. Desperate to speak to anyone, she phones home and is unable to get past the surface stuff she so wanted to ignore. Like Murray, Johansson goes through much of the film with a sombre look on her face. But when the two get together, they share good chemistry. But not in a romantic way, which is intended and plays off the assumption that boys and girls who show interest in one another in the movies must get together at some point. Bob is more of a father figure to Charlotte. He’s been through everything she is going through and had given up hope. Now together they wander the streets of Tokyo and develop a special bond that was never meant to be anything more than friendship.
Lost in Translation is a subtle film. And if you let its many small moments slip by you’ll likely not only become disinterested in it, but you’ll get bored. It should be taken both at face value and for what lies within the tremendous subtext of Bob’s sad looks and Charlotte’s skyward gazes. A blend of funny and serious, it’s a coming out party for Bill Murray as a veteran actor and an affirmation for both Scarlett Johansson and writer/director/producer Sofia Coppola.
Lost in Translation Gallery