Lost in Translation (2003) Movie Review

I suppose it’s not all gravy being the daughter of a world famous filmmaker like Francis Ford Coppola. On the plus side, you can pretty much get any movie made, because even if investors won’t pony up the dough, dear ol dad can simply reach into his sofa and produce the necessary funds. On the negative side, regardless of how great your movie is, you’ll always be known as “the daughter of that really famous guy” and thus any genius you display may be negated on the basis of something as accidental as your birth. But let’s be honest, it’s nice to be able to get a movie made on a whim. Just as Roman Coppola.

“Lost in Translation” is Sofia Coppola’s second film, the first being 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides”, a film lauded by critics but generally considered lacking in entertainment value by mainstream filmgoers. “Translation” follows Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an American movie star past his prime who is in Tokyo to shoot commercials for a Japanese whiskey company. The plan is to jet in, make an easy $2 million, and get the hell out. Things change when Bob encounters Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the young wife of a photographer staying at the same hotel. Fresh out of college, Charlotte is a lost soul, and wanders the streets of Tokyo seeking a purpose.

The two meet, find a mutual understanding, and declare themselves partnered against the bright lights and sterile neo environments of the very alien Tokyo. With Bob’s wife back at home with the kids and Charlotte’s husband (Giovanni Ribisi, “Heaven”) somewhere on assignment (and possibly making the moves on a ditzy actress), the two strangers wander the streets, clubs, and hotel lobbies of Tokyo seeking temporary shelter from their respective solitary existence. Although Bob is in his ’50s and Charlotte is in her ’20s, the two nevertheless gets along, and as time wears on, begins to feel affection — as well as attraction — towards each other.

Lest you believe Coppola has crafted “Lost in Translation” just to follow a predictable Hollywood formula, I can reassure you that she has not. “Translation” doesn’t concern itself with carnal pleasures, and Bob and Charlotte don’t fall head over heels in lust at first sight. There are kisses shared by the two, but they are awkward and tentative, as they should be. Both seems to understand that this can’t possibly go any further than Tokyo, that this thing developing between them can’t ever be mentioned to anyone else. Not because it’s an illicit affair that will cause ripples (although it surely would), but mostly because it’s a secret they’d rather keep between the two of them.

It’s a bit hard to wrap one’s mind around young Scarlett Johansson in the lead female role. Probably still in her teens when the film was made, Johansson showcases a talent that shouldn’t exist for such a young actress. The star of teen films like “Ghost World” and the upcoming MTV high school film “The Perfect Score”, Johansson shouldn’t be able to muster this much maturity or talent, but amazingly enough she is more than up to the task. If anything, Johansson reminds me of Natalie Portman before she became mired in the juvenile fantasies of a guy name George Lucas and was locked into playing what amounts to a mannequin for three consecutive films.

If Johansson strikes the perfect balance of maturity and innocence as Charlotte, then Bill Murray (“Rushmore”) is the perfect leading man for her. Showcasing an easy sense of humor and acting style, Murray’s Bob is a man caught, as Charlotte rightfully guessed, in a midlife crisis. He’s far from home, worries that he’s becoming disinterested in his wife, and his Japanese handlers keep roping him into one goofy thing after another. In other hands, Bob could have been played as over-the-top or exaggerated. Murray does neither, but instead decides to play Bob as controlled and measured, with bursts of spontaneity that literally sucks all the energy out of him.

Sofia Coppola has accomplished an amazing feat with “Lost in Translation”. The film is at once funny, insightful, and very human. It never tries to be more than it is, and the measured pace of the film is pitch perfect. Although the film runs just under 100 minutes, it’s very easy to see how, in other hands, the film could have been extended to drive home the isolation of the characters in a city brimming with millions of people and gaudy technology. Instead, Coppola allows scenes to run just long enough to make her point. If “Translation” had been a Japanese or Korean film, it would have lasted at least two hours, probably more. It’s to Coppola’s credit that she knows when to cut, and when to let the camera just roll.

Compared to her older brother’s “CQ”, which came across as a vanity project without any purpose, “Lost in Translation” is doubly impressive. Okay, so Coppola probably had very little trouble getting the film made, especially with her father’s name attached as producer. But as “CQ” can certainly attest, just because you can make a movie on a whim doesn’t necessarily mean you should. In the case of Sofia Coppola and “Lost in Translation”, sometimes it’s a good thing when you can write your own ticket.

There has been a lot of speculation on what Bob whispered into Charlotte’s ear as the two parts company at the end of the movie. I believe trying to decipher Bob’s secret message is a mistake, because like the relationship itself, the whisper is a secret that should only be known between the two characters. As their nights belonged only to them, so too does Bob’s final words to Charlotte.

Update 12/13/07: So what did Bob whisper to Charlotte? The answer may be here. Maybe.

Sofia Coppola (director) / Sofia Coppola (screenplay)
CAST: Scarlett Johansson …. Charlotte
Bill Murray …. Bob Harris
Giovanni Ribisi …. John
Fumihiro Hayashi …. Charlie
Hiroko Kawasaki …. Hiroko
Daikon …. Bambie
Anna Faris …. Kelly

Buy Lost in Translation on DVD