Posts Tagged ‘Lost in Translation’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 21st 2004:

[Originally this followed a review of The Last Samurai.]

And so we move on to Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation: another week, another film about a troubled American (this time round it’s comedy legend Bill Murray) finding spiritual solace, of a sort, while visiting Japan. A joke about how it would be much more interesting if Tom Cruise starred in the thoughtful tale of bittersweet urban heartache and Murray led the samurai revolt is pretty much obligatory at this point – so feel free to make one for yourself.

Murray plays Bob Harris – not the whispering muso DJ but a Hollywood star – who’s in Tokyo to promote a brand of Japanese whiskey. (It has become a sort of urban legend that really famous actors are forever flying off there to endorse unlikely products – Tommy Lee Jones selling coffee, Cameron Diaz plugging mobile phones – for ridiculous sums, on the understanding the ads never appear outside Japan.) Quite how famous Bob actually is is a bit vague, as hardly anyone makes a big deal out of meeting him and he’s not mobbed on the ginza, despite his face appearing on billboards and the sides of trucks. But anyway.

Staying at the same hotel is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman still figuring out what to do with her life, who’s only in the country to accompany her photographer husband (who means well but is basically a bit of a putz). Bob and Charlotte get to know each other, and…

Well, nothing much actually happens, if we’re honest. This is one of those films that’s been very widely praised, and has certainly been crafted with a good deal of care and skill, and is very satisfying to watch. But the actual plot could be written on the back of a stamp. Bob and Charlotte basically have a very restrained and almost totally chaste affair before going their separate ways. The fact that it happens in Tokyo is largely immaterial – because, although there’s some pretty scenery, the obligatory karaoke sequence (oh, how I love karaoke!), and some bracingly un-PC jokes about the Japanese, Coppola seems more interested in the city as a sort of absurd summation of everything about modern urban living, as seen with all the sense and personal investment stripped out of it (she also seems very interested in Johannson sitting around her hotel room in her pants, judging from the huge number of scenes in which this happens).

I’m probably not doing a very good job of selling you on this film, which is a shame as it really is rather good, honest – for one thing it has a couple of what I’m sure will prove to be the funniest scenes of the year, as the none-more-deadpan Murray contends with a demented TV commercial director and later on a rather excitable prostitute someone’s had sent to his room. But Murray is excellent throughout, his lugubriousness also deployed to express a real sense of listlessness and quiet despair, as well as the realisation that his relationship with Johansson isn’t in any proper sense real. Johansson is every bit his equal in a much less showy part, giving the film heart and soul. It’s a hugely accomplished performance, and all the more impressive considering that only a few months ago the most memorable moment in Johansson’s career was the sight of her getting glued to her bedroom wall by a giant spider.

Sofia Coppola, who knows a thing or two about dodgy early career moves herself, deserves huge credit for writing and directing such an accomplised and distinctive film – even if it isn’t quite the work of utter genius many critics seem to have taken it for. Lost In Translation simply sets out to tell a story about the brief relationship between two very different people – and does it extremely well, filling the tale with charm and longing and real tenderness. A subtle gem.

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