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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