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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

Lost In Translation  (2003)
4 Stars
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris
2003 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for nudity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 29, 2003.
"Lost in Translation," the highly auspicious second film from writer-director Sofia Coppola (following 2000's best motion picture, "The Virgin Suicides"), begins jarringly and without a firmly grasped rhythm. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a middle-aged Hollywood actor coaxed into leaving his family and coming to Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial in exchange for a $2-million paycheck. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent Yale grad without any discernible future plans who has accompanied her photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), to the same overseas city. Being constantly left alone while John chases his next assignment, Charlotte feels empty and lost. For a while, so does the viewer, as we are offered varied, disconnected glimpses of both Bob and Charlotte as they go about their days in a landscape as foreign as the lives they come to realize they have been living. And then Bob and Charlotte—staying in the same hotel—share an elevator ride that ends with a reciprocal smile of acknowledgment, and everything shaky about the preceding twenty minutes suddenly falls into place. It is clear that director Sofia Coppola knew exactly what she was doing all along.

Lyrical and deeply touching, "Lost in Translation" is, first and foremost, the tale of two human beings lost both in their own lives and in their surroundings who unexpectedly discover a kindred connection. From the very beginning, all Bob and Charlotte can muster asking themselves is how they have ended up where they are. Struggling through a wildly different culture than their own and dealing with a serious language barrier, they are stuck in a lonely rut. However, when on their second run-in Bob and Charlotte lock eyes across their smoky hotel bar, the moment they share is not simply one of desperation between two Americans in a foreign setting, but something more. Although Bob is about 25 years Charlotte's senior, their ages are a refreshing non-issue, and when Charlotte approaches Bob and strikes up a conversation, they find themselves understanding each other with more clarity than their significant others' ever have. Writer-director Coppola's assured screenplay never feels the need to enter into a conventional romance between her two central lost souls, but allows the relationship to play out through a more natural set of developments. The result is as intimate, humane, and heartfelt as any love story this year.

Second, "Lost in Translation" is an utterly gorgeous travelogue of Tokyo and its bordering regions. Director Coppola wisely offers no information about the characters' vital backdrop other than what they themselves know, thoughtfully putting the viewer in a place without any advantage over their protagonists. As unusual as the culture and language is to Bob and Charlotte, it is just as bewildering to us. Nonetheless, through its scenic camerawork by cinematographer Lance Acord (2002's "Adaptation"), Tokyo is presented as a rapturous visual delight, unlike any other place on Earth.

Relatedly, Charlotte makes her way late in the film to the city's bordering countryside and ancient temples, and all that needs to be said about the Japanese culture's poignant fight between the past's customs and the present's modern ways—and Charlotte's self-recognition of this very fact—is achieved through a series of completely wordless shots. Not stopping there, Acord and Coppola choose to shoot much of their film as if there is a struggle going on over what framing subject should be in focus and what shouldn't. Sometimes, it takes a few moments for the characters to clear up in a particular scene, as if even through their aesthetic presentation they are constantly on the verge of getting lost in their surroundings. In terms of their innovation and their narrative importance, each shot is simply exquisite.

In essence a two-character motion picture, the picture's ultimate success or failure falls upon the heads of Bill Murray (1998's "Rushmore") and Scarlett Johansson (2001's "Ghost World"), and there will likely not be a more accomplished screen duo for the rest of the year. As Bob Harris, Murray injects his own brand of quirkily winning humor to some scenes, such as a hilariously nightmarish experience on a piece of exercise equipment, and a large helping of unblinking humanity to his every moment. Murray's Bob is a man almost indifferent to his emotionally dead marriage as he continues to go through the motions of his family life and flagging career, and the actor plays these often unspoken subtleties with pitch-perfect grace.

The 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson, playing someone about four years older than she, matches Murray with a wise-beyond-her-years turn that is not surprising from a young actress who has proven her talent in the past, but most definitely is unanticipated. There is true depth, not to mention an emotional tug-of-war, within Charlotte's interior that speaks far louder than words, and it is a testament to Johansson's startlingly mature craft that she nails each and every layer of her complex character.

Giovanni Ribisi (2000's "The Gift") and Anna Faris (2003's "May") turn up in vital supporting roles that are purposefully archetypal rather than three-dimensional, all in the name of further giving Bob and Charlotte very real wake-up calls. Ribisi plays Charlotte's husband, John, as a man who loves his wife without really taking the time to prove it or listen to her. Meanwhile, Faris has some fun as a flaky Hollywood actress in Tokyo promoting her latest action film who is shallow without ever becoming intentionally vain. More could have been done with Faris' small role as Kelly, but all that really needs to be said about her is summed up in her final scene, as she gleefully and cluelessly embarrasses herself singing karaoke to Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better."

The music, with especially notable song selections from The Jesus and Mary Chain, Phoenix, Happy End, Kevin Shields, and My Bloody Valentine, is pitch-perfect, lovingly accentuating every scene they are accompanying rather than merely an excuse to sell soundtrack albums. This is no more true than in the film's two most alive moments—a karaoke free-for-all in which Bill Murray does a charming rendition of "Peace, Love, and Understanding" and Scarlett Johansson performs "Brass in Pocket;" and the heartbreaking closing sequence, which manages to be both hopeful and tragic at the same time without stepping into easy sentimentality. Every last element of "Lost in Translation"—save for the beautiful love story at its center—symbolizes with brilliant clarity the disorienting feeling of being out of place and lost in an alien setting, and it is done without any signs of a heavy hand.

In her sophomore effort, writer-director Sofia Coppola has proven she has the very same filmmaking talent as her father, Francis Ford Coppola, if not more so. She has a way of getting to the heart of her characters and really, truly trying to understand them and their place in the world. "Lost in Translation" is a fascinating and highly original piece of work, while at the same time a compassionate love story that never rings false. When its closing moments arrive, simple and pure, it may just blindside you with its sheer cumulative power.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman