Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an actor on decline. He’s in Japan to shoot a commercial (and being paid $2 million dollars for it). He’s got trouble sleeping. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is in Tokyo with her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). He’s a photographer doing a shoot for some band and it’s taking up a lot of his time. This leaves Charlotte alone for the vast majority of the trip. They’re having some serious problems though John is unaware of them—which might be part of the problem. Bob spots Charlotte in an elevator and is immediately taken with her. Over the next two days, they see each other and are connected by their mutually observed (and unspoken) alienation. They start talking and strike up a friendship.
Lost in Translation (2003), written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is about two people who are natural outsiders driven even further into their isolation by the wholly foreign atmosphere of Japan. Almost everything about Japan is an extreme. The technology, the toadying, the arts, and the entertainment is intense and strange. Why is that dinosaur walking across the screen? Why does Harris have an entourage of five to get him to the miniscule commercial shoot? Bob and Charlotte keep looking around, going with the flow in the vague hope of finding something they understand. When they find each other, it’s obvious that they have succeeded.
There’s so much to like about this movie and so little to dislike. It’s so sensitive and slightly aimless, just like its main characters. That’s because this is intimately about its characters. There is no narration of their thoughts or lives, but you spend enough time close up on their staring faces, you know everything you have to know. The comedy is mostly gentle and pervasive. And, of course, I could look at Scarlett Johansson forever. I don’t think she’s ever been more beautiful or as poignant than in Lost in Translation. Bill Murray has never been better. I haven’t seen The Razor’s Edge (1984) yet, but this is his most honest performance. It got him his only Oscar nomination to date.
Credit, obviously, to Coppola on a great, Oscar-winning screenplay to allow the silence required for these two actors so that they might succeed. Plenty of time is spent on the oddities of Japan and the Japanese, but it does not take up even half of the movie when it would have overshadowed all else in another film. It’s quirky, but never a farce. The same could be applied to the dumb actress character played by Anna Faris. She’s dumber than I imagine any human can be, but only shows up three times to spice up the moment and provide a little juice. Ribisi’s character has more depth than his screentime seems to allow (though much of that is a reflected glow from Johansson). It’s very neat and very simple but carries a greater resonance than her otherwise similar movie Somewhere (2010) (which might have been a prequel to Bill Murray’s character) that lacks the dynamic that Murray and Johansson bring.
I love how the movie looks (cinematography by Lance Acord) and sounds (soundtrack). It’s handheld when it’s close and static when it isn’t. Having it in Blu-Ray is very much worth it (especially now that Blu-Rays have become so inexpensive). Everything is sharp, clear, and on a very pleasing color palette. I’m afraid my vocabulary can go only so far when it comes to colors, but I know something’s going on there and I like it. Lost in Translation is also paced perfectly for its visual style. It’s relaxed enough to convey boredom without actually inducing it.
There is an element of Lost in Translation that I find slightly distasteful and that’s the soupçon of racism. A part of this is my complete adoption of political correctness. I’ve been told that the Japanese flip L’s and R’s, but do they do it as readily as portrayed here? The Japanese are also portrayed as either supremely odd or sheepishly stupid. The only people who avoid this caricature are the silent drones that go about Tokyo on their way to whatever. Yes, this is a comedy, but when an entire people is competing with Anna Faris for the silliest character award, it’s enough to make me uncomfortable. I’ll laugh, sure, but I won’t feel awesome about it. I think that the real problem with this is that Lost in Translation is filmed and otherwise acted as realism. Unlike 2 Days in Paris (2007), where the characters are mostly real, but don’t have time for reflection on their increasingly strange happenings, Lost in Translation is intimate and genuine. Two basically normal people who are melancholic, thoughtful, have real, banal relationship issues, and can’t get to sleep are in a very unnormal situation that goes beyond mere alienation.