WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Feeling out of place and all alone whilst filming a whisky commercial in Tokyo, ageing American actor Bob Harris finds a soulmate in neglected young wife Charlotte. The pair bond as they escape the suffocating confines of their hotel, finding some meaning in their own lives even as they continue to find Japanese culture largely incomprehensible.
You’d think that Bob Harris (Bill Murray) had plenty to be happy about. He arrives in Japan a well-known actor, filming a Suntory Whisky advert for a cool $2 million; but cocooned in his Tokyo hotel room, he can only dismally survey the indecipherable symbols and lights of the city, wearily receiving loveless messages from his estranged but still haranguing wife. He certainly can’t sleep, a problem he shares with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), in Tokyo with photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). While John is obsessed with his assignments, Charlotte listlessly tours the sights of Japan; meanwhile, Bob fulfils his contractual duties without enthusiasm and counts down the hours until he can leave. Late one night/early one morning, however, Charlotte finds herself sat next to Bob at the bar and the pair discover they have a connection, not least a mutual need for company in a strange land. As they enjoy each other’s company in karaoke bars and other Tokyo locations, both the experienced actor and the young bride ask themselves whether theirs is a friendship of convenience or something more substantial. Suddenly, Tokyo’s not such a bad place after all.
Lost in Translation was widely, loudly and highly praised on its release, so my expectations were sky-high on my first viewing of the film about six or seven years ago. I was incredibly disappointed, finding it overlong, underdeveloped, and as self-involved as you might expect from the pampered (so I guessed) daughter of a famous director. Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo is a world of photo-shoots, TV commercials and movie press conferences: Anna Faris pops up entertainingly as a fad-obsessed actress giving a press conference in the hotel. Watching it again, these feelings persisted, and I was also struck by the film’s dismissive attitude towards its beautifully polite hosts: while I don’t think the film pokes fun at the Japanese, neither does it attempt to illuminate the viewer about (what Westerners might consider to be) the eccentricities of the country, content merely to have the places and people as the alien background against which Bob and Charlotte find each other. And there are a few retrograde gags about the Japanese pronunciation of English sounds which add very little.
It strikes me as bizarre, too, that Coppola won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, since the vast majority of the ‘action’ consists of an endless series of incomplete scenes of mundane activity/inactivity and a lot of stuff in Japanese which she clearly didn’t write. To top it all, the most famous scene in the entire film doesn’t reveal its dialogue; so while Bob’s last goodbye to Charlotte is open to any amount of interpretation – “I’ll never love anyone like you”; “I’ll be back for you this time next year”; “ten minutes, hotel round the corner” – it’s really just a writer’s trick. Admittedly, it’s a pretty good trick, but it relies on our pressing desire to complete the characters’ stories, and I’d had plenty of guesswork by the end of the film – where, for example, do all of Charlotte’s Japanese friends suddenly come from, given that she’s spent her first few days moping on her own?
On the plus side, Lost in Translation does make Japan look terrifically exotic, and if you can attune yourself to the languid rhythm of the film – and the fact that very little happens – Coppola’s very modern form of (non-)storytelling becomes rather hypnotic. But let’s not beat around the bush: the film stands up solely due to the magnetism of the two central performers. Bill Murray’s Bob is wonderfully world-weary, aloof as you’d expect a long-time star to be but still craving warmth and love, rather than carpet samples in the post or roleplaying escorts. Murray’s performance is one of delicious gravity and restraint, his sense of humour twinkling through his despair (look at the women in the row behind as Bob waits for Charlotte in the hospital). It’s vitally important that Johansson matches him and she does, balancing the vulnerability of a young woman left alone in a big city with intelligence and an urge to explore. Although Charlotte is rarely glamorous, Johansson is astonishingly photogenic from every angle, which never hurts, though she and Murray (no doubt under Coppola’s direction, to be scrupulously fair) always control the intensity of their feelings towards each other. The progression of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is believable and their chemistry is extraordinary, but, given their relative ages, an overly strong suggestion of sexual attraction would have felt mightily icky.
To do it justice, Lost in Translation has to be seen as a mood-piece rather than narrative cinema; and as such, my lukewarm feelings about it have to be taken as a purely personal preference, in general, for stories and/or comedy and/or action rather than fuzzier, daresay artier, works. On the basis of this film and Marie Antoinette, my first instinct would be to run a mile from a new Ms Coppola movie; yet I’d definitely have a look at the cast list: Bill or Scarlett could always tempt me in.