Review by Paul Stathakis | 2003

Not much hap­pens in “Lost in Trans­la­tion.” In fact, the entire sto­ry can be sum­ma­rized in a cou­ple of sen­tences. A renowned actor named Bob Har­ris (Bill Mur­ray) trav­els to Tokyo to shoot a pro­mo­tion­al com­mer­cial for a pecu­liar brand of Whisky. Dur­ing his brief vis­it, he meets a young attrac­tive Amer­i­can, Char­lotte (Scar­lett Johans­son), who instant­ly falls for him. The two wan­der the busy city, shoot­ing the breeze — as they say. As lit­tle as pos­si­ble hap­pens in this sto­ry and that’s the way writer/director Sofia Cop­po­la likes it: sim­ple, gen­tle, and mov­ing. And along with the pack­age comes sweep­ing per­for­mances of Oscar caliber.

If you’re going to tell a love sto­ry, no mat­ter how strong the love is or how young the lovers are, there must be chem­istry between the actors. Robert Red­ford and Bar­bara Streisand in “The Way We Were”, Bil­ly Crys­tal and Meg Ryan in “When Har­ry Met Sal­ly”, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in “Pret­ty Woman” — all suc­cess­ful onscreen rela­tion­ships in which the lovers knew how to charm one anoth­er with looks, smiles, and spe­cial words. Bill Mur­ray and Scar­lett Johans­son can eas­i­ly join that list even though they’re not the same type of lovers. They actu­al­ly use “looks” to the fullest instead, which only makes us want to see them kiss even more.

Char­lotte is a mar­ried woman. She has been for two years, already. Her hus­band (Gio­van­ni Ribisi) is a care­less pho­tog­ra­ph­er, always busy, nev­er hav­ing enough time for his wife. He seems to know noth­ing about feel­ings and love, which kind of makes us won­der how Char­lotte could’ve mar­ried such a man in the first place. What attract­ed her? Was the rela­tion­ship dif­fer­ent at the begin­ning? Did her hus­band promise grand things?

Bob is also a mar­ried man. He, on the oth­er hand, has been mar­ried for 20 years. But his mar­riage is on the rocks. We under­stand this by lis­ten­ing-in on Bob’ phone con­ver­sa­tions with his wife. She says to him, with­out heart, “The kids are get­ting used to you not being here.” We get this feel­ing that she real­ly wants him to stay in Tokyo. It is almost trag­ic to see what a cold and shal­low life waits for him on the oth­er end of the line.

So these two peo­ple, with imper­fect mar­i­tal lives, luck­i­ly meet. They talk a lit­tle and then the night ends. But they meet again and end up in a karaoke bar, mak­ing fools of them­selves while drink­ing the night away. In a way, it’s some­thing we’ve all done before. You grab the micro­phone and sing along, read­ing lyrics off a tele­vi­sion screen. But it nev­er works out and if it does, it’s rare. That lit­tle bit adds more fun to this humane dra­ma about peo­ple desir­ing change in their lives. They’ll accept any­thing. They’ll set­tle for the sim­plest of things that bring them hap­pi­ness. In this case, it is each oth­er’s company.

There is an emo­tion­al scene in the movie, where Bob and Char­lotte lie beside each oth­er on a bed, half-asleep, and dis­cuss mar­riage. Char­lotte says, “I’m stuck. Does it get any eas­i­er?” Bob replies, “No. Yes, it gets eas­i­er. You’re not hope­less.” He gen­tly taps her on the ankle and the scene ends. Cop­po­la has a way of incor­po­rat­ing mean­ing in small dia­logue. She avoids the big speech­es about life and love and how every­thing will turn out just fine in the end. Some may con­nect with the sto­ry while oth­ers, like an elder woman who sat beside me in the the­ater, may snooze before the sec­ond half.

”Lost in Trans­la­tion” is Sofia Cop­po­la’s sec­ond fea­ture film, which plays like a doc­u­men­tary with its hand-held shots of Toky­o’s wild nights. It is also satir­i­cal. Cop­po­la even makes these iron­ic state­ments about her career through the voice of Char­lotte when she admits that she failed as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and as a writer. A won­der­ful writer/director is bring­ing us this dia­logue. This is some­one who knows all about pho­tog­ra­phy and writ­ing (note: direct­ing is about pic­ture-fram­ing which, itself, is a form of photography).

Bob is old­er than Char­lotte but the age dif­fer­ence does­n’t seem so impor­tant in Lost in Trans­la­tion. That is why we want some­thing to hap­pen between them, bad­ly. We want them to aban­don their nor­mal lives and run off togeth­er. We beseech that hap­py fairy-tale-like end­ing. And so, in the end, much like the char­ac­ters, we’re ready to set­tle for any­thing remote­ly close to joy.


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