Lost in Translation

Two strangers find friendship in Sofia Coppola’s fantastic Lost in Translation

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Released by Focus Features
102 minutes

A few years ago I was enjoying a weekend in the country with my “smart” friends.   The conversation turned to films and these guys, who are now on their way to becoming lawyers and successful business men, all started complaining about how much they hated the film Lost in Translation.

“It’s so boring,” they whined, “it doesn’t go anywhere.”   I sat there in shock, how could these people who are the smartest people I know be so blind to the brilliance of this film?   I may never have a successful career in business but I’m smart enough to know how ridiculous it is to dismiss a gem of a film like this.

The film begins on a close up of see-through panties.   Just an excuse to see some ass a more cynical person might say, but I believe with that shot director Sofia Coppola is trying to give the viewer the same level of disorientation as her leads Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray).

What the hell is this film going to be about, right?   As the bright colors and sounds of Japanese drift softly over Bob’s tired yet interested face in the next scene, Coppola invites us to join her characters on a trip which to a Westerner seems like a bizarre fantasy land.

After meeting both characters you realize that feeling lost and confused are emotions Bob and Charlotte have been well acquainted with long before their arrival in Tokyo.   Charlotte is a recent college grad and newlywed who has accompanied her photographer husband to Japan. Charlotte knows that spending your days visiting shrines and smoking cigarettes in hotel rooms while your husband works is no way to live, but she’s struggling to figure out what her next step is.

Scarlett Johansson is amazing in a role that rightly catapulted her into the Hollywood A- list. She portrays Charlotte’s growing despair so vividly in seemingly unimportant moments like walking through a subway or sitting on a window ledge.   Charlotte has one foot off that ledge and no one, even her supposed friends, seems to notice. Giovanni Ribisi is equally as good as Charlotte’s well-meaning but clueless husband John, who while wrapped up in photographer lifestyle doesn’t notice that his wife is drifting away from him.

As he showed in Rushmore (1998) Bill Murray can play serious very well and yet like in that film, even in the more serious scenes Murray also never loses that silly charm that made audiences fall in love with him. Murray plays over the hill actor Bob, a man who’s still living the movie star life of casual sex and always being on the road even though he clearly doesn’t enjoy it anymore.

“You’re probably just going through a mid-life crisis,” Charlotte wryly observes upon their first meeting in the hotel bar, “have you bought a Porsche yet?”

While there is an element of sexual attraction between Charlotte and Bob, what’s more important to both of them is that for the first time in a long while they’ve made a genuine connection with someone.   Charlotte now has someone to walk the streets of Tokyo with.   Bob meanwhile is charmed by this brutally honest young woman who wants to know the real him, not the movie star version of him.

In the moment where a different film would have included a sex scene, Bob and Charlotte lie in bed together fully clothed and talk about everything from marriage to children to careers.   The moment where a sleepy Charlotte rubs her feet against Bob for instance is particularly intimate.

By becoming close friends instead of lovers Coppola, who wrote the film as well, has crafted not a clichéd saga of a young woman and much older man having an affair in a foreign country, but rather a touching story of how deeply someone you’ve known for only a short while can affect your life.

The more time Bob and Charlotte spend together other, the less strange and more beautiful the city of Tokyo becomes.   That final scene where Bob finds Charlotte in the street to say goodbye is in my opinion one of the most beautiful scenes ever shot.

And I’m sorry smart friends, but there’s nothing boring about that.

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