Lost In Translation (2003)

Lost In Translation first published by Movie Gazette in 2003

Nobody does jaded quite like Bill Murray. Since his mid-1970s appearances in Saturday Night Live, his hang-dog expression and martini-dry delivery have always made him seem cynical beyond his years, and now that he actually is middle-aged, he plays the mid-life crisis like he was born to it, in films like Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), Tom Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock (1999), and especially Wes Anderson’s sublime Rushmore (1998).

So once again Murray gets to do what he does best in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, where he plays Bob Harris, a washed-up Hollywood actor who is in Japan filming a celebrity endorsement for a brand of whisky, in part because he needs the work, in part to escape the suffocating humdrum of his 25-year marriage to Lydia. Bob is staying in the same Tokyo hotel as Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young ex-student of philosophy who is unsure what to do with her life or whether she has done the right thing in marrying photographer John (Giovanni Ribisi). Unable to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, Charlotte meets Bob in the hotel bar, and their shared dissatisfaction and anxiety quickly becomes the basis of an intense friendship. Charlotte makes Bob feel younger, Bob makes Charlotte feel appreciated, and in an alien environment, at a time of personal crisis, the pair discovers mutual understanding and comfort – until the week is over and it is time to resume their everyday lives.

Lost In Translation is about two people who have lost their way, and a brief encounter in a place outside their everyday life which helps them both find their bearings and get back on track. Governed by minute observations of character rather than sweeping events, the film first offers a wry series of parallel vignettes which show Bob and Charlotte in situations where communications have broken down: Bob struggling to comprehend his Japanese handlers and director, Charlotte failing to connect with her husband. It is a good half an hour before a single word is exchanged between Bob and Charlotte, but that moment marks the first meaningful communication that either has had in Japan. From then on they become constant companions and conspirators, like a couple of intimate lovers, overcoming their alienation and incomprehension precisely by sharing their experience of them.

Bob and Charlotte’s slow-burning relationship is evoked with humour and tenderness by Murray and Johansson, whose on-screen rapport, despite the difference in their age, is tangible. Lance Acord’s cinematography transforms Tokyo into a strange wonderland, as far from Hollywood as Coppola’s contemplative, uncluttered script, which allows its two central characters to develop at a leisurely pace, and ends not with a bang, but a whisper (itself lost in the film’s translation). Coppola’s contempt for Tinseltown sensibilities is reflected in her satirical treatment of Kelly (Anna Faris), a loud, vapid starlet visiting Japan to promote her latest blockbuster, Midnight Velocity (starring Keanu Reeves, naturally).

Seeing Bob and Charlotte’s lives changed in Lost In Translation may not exactly change yours too, but it is a smart, stylish portrait of a romance which, if it happens at all, is left between the lines.

© Anton Bitel