Lost in Translation
Directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris. (2003, R, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 26, 2003
Recently I heard a story about a guy – you know, a friend of a friend of a friend – who was waiting for the subway in New York when suddenly Bill Murray stole up behind him, gave him a noogie, and then whispered in his ear: "No one will ever believe you." It’s probably not true, but it feeds (for me, happily) into my generation’s mythologizing of Bill Murray, and the fierce affection that comes with it. We grew up watching him in SNL reruns, crooning about Star Wars, or in goofball comedies like Ghostbusters, cracking wise through a sliming. He always had an edge – my God, that smirk – but as he settles into middle age and enjoys the attentions of a new wave of hugely talented young filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, it’s what’s underneath the smirk that counts. And what’s underneath the smirk is utter despair. Here (in a part Coppola wrote specifically for him), Murray plays Bob, an aging movie star who flies to Tokyo to bag an easy paycheck as the pitchman for Suntory whiskey. Although he doesn’t have the near-suicidal glaze of Rushmore’s Herman Blume, Bob is bored, dissatisfied. Moreover, he’s jet-lagged and fumbling in an alien culture; when he calls home for comfort, his harried wife just wants to know what color he prefers for the den carpeting. In short, the guy needs a shaking up, and bad. So does Charlotte (Ghost World’s Johansson), a wandering twentysomething stuck at the same Tokyo hotel for a week while her hip, fawning photographer husband (Ribisi) shoots a music video. Charlotte has no career (she lists off the endeavors, like writing and photography, she has tried, then put aside), but plenty of doubts about her marriage. She and Bob, neither able to sleep, bump into each other in the hotel bar, then the pool. Soon, they run around Tokyo together, drinking and singing karaoke into the early-morning hours when a person becomes most vulnerable, and most aching to connect. They do connect, not sexually (although the question hangs in the air throughout), but in a far more profound – and risky – way: when you lay yourself bare to another and ask them to reassure you that you are unique, that the ordinary you is worthy of the extraordinary. And extraordinary their relationship becomes, a yearning, indelible love-affair-that-isn’t. It spans a week, at the most, and consists of no thundering moments of action or clarity. Both actors – Johansson, with her full-lipped, sensual glumness, and Murray, when his face is slack and unfeeling – are too sensitive for much emoting; when they do slide into a fit of expressiveness, a loud laugh or a cockeyed lip that curls into a smile, the effect is startling. (And often very funny: Murray, in particular, has moments of sublime physical comedy.) With Lost in Translation, Coppola shakes loose the dreaminess and self-seriousness of her first feature, the very fine Virgin Suicides. She’s still banging away at the same ideas – what it means to be human and needy – but she does so here with a far more naturalistic, self-effacing approach. She, and her characters, know this isn’t end-of-the-world stuff – without their finding each other, Bob and Charlotte would have been OK. But to hope, to demand, better than OK is also what it means to be human. Lost in Translation is a film about catharsis, the kind that exists outside of movies: the slow reawakening, triggered by the compassion and like-mindedness of another, that everyone craves. Coppola’s film, a lovely, quietly thrilling thing, begins with a man, thick with ragged, wincing despair, looking around and questioning, "Is this all there is?" And by film’s end, the defiant negation: No, there’s so much more.