FILM REVIEW: LOST IN TRANSLATION
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Reporter
In her brief career, Sofia Coppola has established herself as a remarkably intuitive director. While most directors use structure, plot and dialogue as their storytelling building blocks, Coppola seems to work through her material by feel. Both of her movies, her 2000 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Virgin Suicides" and now "Lost in Translation," zero in on emotions and moods, making them uncannily vivid.
She was able to capture the tricky tragedy-turned-misty-memory tone of Eugenides' novel not by literally replicating each plot point but by letting the material breathe and shimmer as she matched the images with the French pop duo Air's soundscapes and yearning time-capsule '70s hits by Heart. With "Lost in Translation," Coppola is directing her own original screenplay, and if anything, her ability to plunge you into unsettling dream worlds has heightened.
The key players are a jaded, aging actor named Bob Harris, who comes across as an alternate version of the man playing him, Bill Murray, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the young wife of a highly caffeinated rock-band photographer (Giovanni Ribisi). Bob and Charlotte find themselves isolated in a Tokyo high-rise hotel. He's away from his family and has much down time between filming stints for Japanese whiskey commercials; she's on her own while her husband conducts an out-of-town photo shoot.
The movie is about how these two souls connect, but it's never as obvious as that. In fact, it conforms to almost none of the existing stereotypes regarding stories about a relationship between an older man and a younger woman; this is no Woody Allen or Michael Douglas movie. "Lost in Translation" is far more mysterious and complex, as it muses bittersweetly on marriage, longing and the disconnectedness one can feel from another culture or people.
Coppola reportedly wrote the movie with Murray in mind, and her instinct was dead-on. Building on his performance in "Rushmore," Murray informs his trademark deadpan with melancholy and warmth. Like many Murray characters, Bob sees absurdity all around him, but his tired eyes reveal that his days of rebelling are long past.
He has knowingly signed on as a whiskey endorser for the money; he may be perplexed by the director's instructions, which are relayed to him in a suspect translation, but he'll do his job as a professional. What makes this a great performance is that Murray never allows Bob to come across as superior to his surroundings. Instead of hiding behind a wisecracking veneer, Bob is exposed, vulnerable, so when he befriends Charlotte or sings Roxy Music's "More Than This" in a karaoke bar, his heart is fully engaged even as his eyes register humor.
Johansson is equally revelatory as Charlotte, who, like Coppola herself, is a soft-spoken dilettante who can say a lot while saying little. She has a luminous, intelligent quality, drawing Bob (and us) toward her with little apparent effort.
The movie hinges more on moments than plot turns. The connection between Bob and Charlotte never feels forced; they meet the way people meet in hotels, by happenstance and repetition.
When they finally venture out on the town together, the night passes in a sort of delirium, as Coppola lets the neon lights and ever-present LCD screens, the cacophony of street noises and overall electric energy, seep into your psyche. In a way you lose consciousness that you're watching a movie and instead feel you've been immersed in the wondrous, chaotic environment that the protagonists are trying to navigate.
Coppola's sense of plotting gets hazy during these stretches; Charlotte is often meeting up with friends, and we have no idea who they are or how she met them. In general, the Japanese characters come across as a blur, which may fit the theme of Americans getting lost translating another culture, but the portrayal verges on stereotypical. You're left with a sense that most of the natives are repressed or loopy, and they swap their r's and l's.
Nonetheless, Coppola's observations are made with affection and appear to reflect actual experiences in Tokyo, a place so overscaled that no outsider could get a complete handle on it. And she nails the intimate details, from the way Bob and Charlotte express themselves in their clothing to awkward moments such as a halting goodnight peck on an elevator.
"Lost in Translation" can be seen as a bleak comment on marriage, with Bob recognizing that Charlotte has set out on the bumpy road that he's already been traveling. The movie offers no quick fixes or easy explanations, just the prospect of unexpected moments of grace in the unlikeliest of places.
Dislocated from their native country and former lives, Bob and Charlotte come to establish a language of their own. Coppola has done the same, proving she boasts one of today's truly distinct filmmaking voices.
"Lost in Translation"
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola; photographed by Lance Acord; edited by Sarah Flack; production designed by Anne Ross, K.K. Barrett; music by Brian Reitzell, Kevin Sields; produced by Ross Katz, Coppola. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, Sept. 12. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (some sexual content).
Bob Harris Bill Murray
Charlotte Scarlett Johansson
John Giovanni Ribisi
Kelly Anna Faris
Jazz Singer Catherine Lambert
Ms. Kawasaki Akiko Takeshita