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Middle-aged American movie star Bob Harris is in Tokyo to film a personal endorsement Suntory whiskey ad solely for the Japanese market. He is past his movie star prime, but his name and image still have enough cachet for him to have gotten this lucrative $2 million job. He has an unsatisfying home life where his wife Lydia follows him wherever he goes - in the form of messages and faxes - for him to deal with the minutiae of their everyday lives, while she stays at home to look after their kids. Staying at the same upscale hotel is fellow American, twenty-something recent Yale Philosophy graduate Charlotte, her husband John, an entertainment still photographer, who is on assignment in Japan. As such, she is largely left to her own devices in the city, especially when his job takes him out of Tokyo. Both Bob and Charlotte are feeling lost by their current situations, which are not helped by the cultural barriers they feel in Tokyo, those cultural barriers extending far beyond just not... Written by
Breathtaking and beautiful - improves on second viewing
I was just like every other curious American filmgoer a few months ago when I went and saw Lost in Translation for the first time. That's right, I wanted to know what in the hell was so great about the movie that critics were calling possibly the best of the year and a modern masterpiece. I saw Translation for the first time and liked it, but didn't really know what they saw in the movie that was so beyond-belief spectacular. But alas, I believe that every movie deserves a second chance (i.e. - the miracle of hating Moulin Rouge on round one and having it shoot near the top of my favorites of all time a year later), so just recently I sat down and experienced director Sophia Coppola's Lost In Translation again.
Lost in Translation tells the story of Bob Harris (Bill Murray in a role tailor-made, if not even Heaven-sent for him), an American movie star that comes to Tokyo to film a whiskey commerical for which he will be paid 2 million bucks. Staying in the same Tokyo hotel is Charlotte (Scarlett Johanssen, radiant and mature at only 18), a newlywed tagging along with her rock photographer husband, John (a typically awkward Giovanni Ribisi). Along the way, Charlotte and Bob run into each other and begin a 'brief encounter' that profoundly affects them both.
When the movie hits you right, it's a pure pleasure from its unassuming start (a beautifully lit shot up Johanssen's underwear-clothed behind) to its ambiguous but meaningful ending. It begins as a comedy of culture clash, Harris sarcastic and confused at the Japanese when entering his hotel, and even more befuddled in a hilarious scene where he shoots the whiskey commerical (and one later during a photo shoot). Coppola delivers Bob into her movie with the impression that it'll be all about him (he has plenty of great scenes, even at just the beginning), but Charlotte enters the story, and we're never quite the same. Scarlett Johanssen plays Charlotte with just the right amount of emotion that her initially morose and soul-searching character doesn't seem silly. At one point, she tearfully admits over the phone, "I don't know who I married." This may come off as silly, but consider her position: far away from home, newly married, in a big intimidating city, and her husband is away on a photo shoot. Bob, on the other hand, seems to have it made, but Murray lets a current of loneliness run across that memorable face that seems to hint at something more. He gets comical faxes from his wife about bookshelves and carpet samples, but he gives off the impression that he's come to the point where he doesn't even care anymore. Bob is certainly alone for a time in Tokyo, but Murray gives off the impression that things at home aren't too hot either.
For the first third of the movie, director Coppola displays her first brave choice in filmmaking by keeping Bob and Charlotte apart. During this time, the smooth, languid pace of the film falls into place, and by languid I don't mean 'boring.' Upon my first viewing of Translation, I wasn't convinced of Coppola's choice to keep the movie so predominantly low-key, but I've realized that there's a reason for it. The movie sustains this amazing vibe that doesn't stunt its progress, but propels it with a driving fluidity. A few times, though, Bob and Charlotte do see each other without officially meeting. One time in particular occurs in a crowded elevator - the two glance at each other, faintly smile, and possibility is born. The first section of the film doesn't just serve to show its two characters completely apart - it makes you think of how many life-changing connections you've missed in the past by just being passive and solitary.
Coppola successfully juggles Bob and Charlotte apart, but when they do meet, it's pure magic. They begin voyages out into the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and the film almost takes on a perspective that differs from its earlier view. Before, we saw Bob Harris and Charlotte, respectively, at their most private and vulnerable. While out on the town, the film seems to sit back and just let them have fun. Thank God, for Bill Murray's rousing rendition of Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" is a blast. During this time, it seems that Bob and Charlotte have forgotten their insomnia and loneliness, but it's not gone forever. Even during their night on the town, we see moments where they sit silently, pensive and confused. The movie is a comedy in some sense, but it escalates into a pervading tragic feel. At one point, Charlotte says to Bob: "Let's never come back here again, because it will never be as much fun." I was struck deeply by this because, well, they had fun, but only in the sense of putting off more loneliness and desperation.
The movie takes a while to truly glean out the deep-seated motivations of both of its characters, but they become fully-realized in a marvelous scene where Bob and Charlottelay fully-clothed in bed together. Here, they handle the 'big' questions in life, and not "Where did you go to college?" or "What did you want to be when you were little?" but "What is my purpose?" and "Does marraige get easier?" I was amazed at the honesty of the character's responses. Bob relates to Charlotte the experience of having children and the ongoing struggles of marraige, but a tinge of fear and apprehension runs through his speech. Charlotte hasn't really figured things out for herslef yet - she says she's tried just about everything but hasn't found that niche. Coppola's screenplay takes these two separate beings, far apart in age and experiences, and makes a profound statement - both are in the same exact emotional limbo. Charlotte is confused and worried, but Bob is regretful and washed-up. In a way, these two are some form of deeply odd soul-mates. That is the heart and soul of Coppola's amazing work.
I couldn't end this review without mentioning another star behind the scenes of the movie that is nearly as effective to the film as Director/Screenwriter Sophia Coppola. That is cinematographer Lance Acord, who should just start writing his Oscar acceptance speech now. He has worked on Coppola's husband's (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze) films before, but this is his finest, most beautiful work yet. He captures Japan, and the film's characters, with such a soft-but-colorfully-abstract flare that it's nearly inexplicable. I often wondered why, beyond the fact that they have so much to think about, Bob and Charlotte (especially her) are seen staring out windows so much. If they see Tokyo with the same awe-inspiring glow that the film does, they have no better reason.
Perhaps the movie didn't sit as well with me the first time because I kept attempting to figure out what the movie was. It has great comedic flair with Murray's wonderful work, but it's also perhaps one of the saddest and most moving films I've seen in a long time. It's some form of a romance, too, but it's not about when they'll kiss or when they'll hit the sheets (one kiss on the cheek becomes unbearably awkward). It also has that Affair to Remember vibe too, where the journey of two souls that find comfort will eventually have to come to an end. Its end, though, defies classification, as does the rest of the film. Many times during the film's quaint, quietly moving finale, I expected lush music to start playing to underscore the escalating sadness of the film. It doesn't. Coppola simply lets her two amazing leads do the work. When the film does arrive at its final, ambiguous moment, it all just seems perfect. The catchy Japan-pop soundtrack that runs brilliantly throughout the film begins to play, and I find myself with a huge regret: that I won't be able to savor the subtle chemistry of Bob and Charlotte, and that a flat-out masterpiece in American film is at its end.
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