Lost in Translation

A review

The stunning Lost in Translation marks a tremendous leap for Sofia Coppola after the admirable but flawed Virgin Suicides, her writing-directing feature debut of three years ago. With Translation, she puts herself on a reputable par with husband Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), and if she has a few more of these in her, she could someday seriously rival father Francis (Apocalypse Now, The Godfathers).

Like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Lost in Translation is about two people trying to suppress their extramarital attraction to each other. While Coppola’s film possesses Wong’s wistfulness and poetic imagery, it has less of his artsy oppressiveness and emotional distancing. An A-list world-weary actor named Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in Tokyo making a fast and luxurious buck by doing Santori whiskey ads (Hollywood’s biggest names do lucrative commercials in Japan all the time without facing the humility of doing the same at home). Recent Yale philosophy grad Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the young wife of on-assignment fashion photographer John (Giovanni Ribisi). Having been married for two years, John is still in love with Charlotte but is nevertheless always away at work. The third major character is Tokyo itself, all-enveloping in its infinitely receding horizon yet impenetrable beyond the surface.

Her feelings of abandonment exacerbated by her cultural isolation in Tokyo, Charlotte finally finds relief in the companionship of Bob, himself alienated by the language barrier and by his family life, particularly wife of 25 years Lydia, who only exists as a discordant phone voice nagging him about banal domestic concerns back in the States. The film follows Bob and Charlotte’s progression from strangers to chance-encounter acquaintances to friends who desire to be something more. But in addition to being married, Bob and Charlotte’s age difference of 30-plus years help keep their growing romantic attraction at bay.

While touted in some reviews as a Brief Encounter-like romance, Lost in Translation is much more than that, including an examination of aging — the confusion met upon reaching adulthood, the staleness of married life, and the aloofness of being past your prime. The emotional stand-in for all of this is the characters’ relationship with Tokyo. With the city’s vibrant arcades, colorful pachinko parlors, loony talk shows and bizarre adult entertainment, Coppola presents Asian culture as an alien landscape to most Western eyes. This is the most visceral screen presentation of Japan since Edward Yang’s Yi Yi three years ago. Sitting before her high-rise Hyatt hotel window, Charlotte looks like she’s floating above the city. The shot is an eloquent metaphor — she’s immersed in Tokyo yet separate from it. At first, Bob ridicules what he cannot understand, but gradually, his derision grows more affectionate. He and Charlotte’s rapport with the city evolves simultaneous to their own relationship.

Coppola makes a reference to La Dolce Vita, which Bob and Charlotte watch on television one night. Tokyo may not be Rome, but both cities offer the same futile pleasures to their protagonists. In La Dolce Vita, it’s because the characters are only going through the motions seeking to hide their essential emptiness. In Translation, it’s because they cannot breach the culture gap for any real understanding. For all of Charlotte’s intellectual background, she cannot connect with the spiritualism she observes behind a religious temple ceremony. The end is another nod to Fellini with Charlotte replacing Marcello’s seaside girl as a glimmer of hope.

Luckily, Coppola doesn’t supply a romantic sense of destiny that the two belong together, and were it not for the happenstance of their emotional isolation, they would not likely have become even friends. In one scene, Bob and Charlotte sing karaoke at a party with Bob engaging in Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” Rarely has the use of a song to carry thematic weight felt so moving. The lyrics, “More than this — there is nothing,” sounds a note of existential desolation that gives way to acceptance and finally affirmation. Charlotte is a random encounter in the wilderness, but connecting with her is enough.

Bob and Charlotte as played by Murray and Johansson certainly make an odd couple. Murray’s pock-marked face starkly contrasts with Johansson’s unblemished skin and pursed lips. What is most remarkable about their performances is how perfectly normal they come off. Murray mostly avoids his customary hangdog mannerisms aside from some slapstick on an exercise machine. When he does adopt star persona familiarity, it feels appropriate to his character, who is after all, a big Hollywood movie star. Of late, Murray has pursued artier roles in the works of Wes Anderson, Michael Almereyda and now Coppola, but he’s always had a streak in him that transcended his “Saturday Night Live” comic roots. Don’t forget that in 1984, he starred in and co-wrote a remake of Razor’s Edge, which is about nothing less than the search for the meaning of life. As for Johansson, if Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There set up Johansson’s promise, Translation confirms it. As an 18-year-old, she is remarkably convincing as a woman nearing her mid-20s.

On the surface of the movie, Japanese culture seems to get some condescension from Coppola, especially in the presentation of a Japanese “masseuse,” a not-too competent translator and the commercial director who wants superficial Rat Pack and Roger Moore impressions. At the same time, however, Bob’s contemptuous responses feel overblown and uncharitable. Coppola can at least point to one scene that reveals her sleight of hand. Bob sits next to a minuscule Japanese man, and at first the point seems to be a joke at the diminutive man’s expense, but in the background, two Japanese women watch him trying to communicate with Bob and they can’t stop laughing over Bob’s bumbling attempts to understand him. Even as we’re laughing at perceived Japanese eccentricities, they too are laughing at us and ours. “Us” gets some more thumping with Kelly (Anna Faris, most recently seen in The Hot Chick), a spoof of “if-Britney Spears-were-an-actress.” It’s spot-on and scathing without feeling like Coppola is relishing it (too much, anyway).

With all of the directorial talent on display, it’s easy to forget how observant a writer Coppola is. Certainly a lot of it plays to her strength — the knowing look at celebrity (how they are coddled, how strangers hesitantly approach them), the commercial shoot, the absurd talk show circuit. But what works best in the movie is her quiet study of human nature — how Bob and Charlotte react to the people and circumstances around them and to each other. Their platonic conversation in bed is one of the movie’s highlights. They ask “Where are you from?” questions and proceed to feel out their comfort zones of intimacy. Bob’s final move is to place his hand over her foot, a casual move that is anything but casual. The end is composed of two great scenes, one heartbreaking, the other joyously bittersweet in its fleetingness, but both are elucidated with a cinematic verve that makes Sofia Coppola a talent to look forward to in the years to come.