DVD Review of Lost In Translation

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/2/04


  All men recall a woman from their past that sticks in their mind, not as some drop dead gorgeous goddess nor as some hideous dog that made them want to retch, but simply because they were in some way, however minor, interesting. That interestingness may have been their looks, their quirks, their persona, or some indefinable ‘otherness’. Well, that’s what the film Lost In Translation is- it’s not a bad film, nor nearly as good as its reputation proclaims, but it is unlike just about any other Hollywood or indie film to come down the pike in the last few decades.

  That it was nominated for and won a screenwriting Oscar for director Sofia Coppola is just plain silly since the film’s resonance and character creation comes from its visual images, not its too spare writing. An aging, former American film star named Bob Harris (Bill Murray) comes to Tokyo to film an ad for a brand of scotch. Like many American film stars in real life who refuse such stateside, lest oddly believe they’ll dampen their credibility as actors, he accepts the enormous sum the Japanese sponsors offer him- $2 million- for a week or so’s work. There he meets the Gen Y wife of a hip young photographer named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). They have little in common save their shared loneliness and insomnia when Charlotte’s husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) goes off for a few days on a shoot. Charlotte is a typically aimless young soul who peripatetically bounces between wanting to write or photograph, & seeking an outlet for her philosophy degree from Yale, while Bob is a lethargic middle aged man who’s not so much in crisis mode as he is in ennui to the cosmos.

  Via drinks, wandering, karaoke, and just hanging out for a few days the 2 strike up a friendship where they discuss the rather dull and loveless lives they lead. Bob’s wife is a long distance nag whose temper, glimpsed briefly by the viewer, seems to be the reason Bob hops in to bed with an American lounge singer at the hotel, while Charlotte’s clueless husband likewise prompts her to call a friend and momentarily ponder leaving him. Other than that the rest of the plot consists of the duo’s interactions with some rather ill-conceived Oriental stereotypes- many Japanese who cannot pronounce an R correctly, including a flamingly queer tv host, & a hooker sent to Bob’s room by his sponsors. While attempting to initiate an S&M session she begs Bob to ravish her by ripping her stockings- ‘Lip them!’, she commands. Charlotte, meanwhile, spends most of the film lounging about in her underpants and staring out at the immense Tokyo skyline. This dual anomy is presumably what draws the 2 main characters to each other, yet little depth is in the screenplay that would reveal why their attraction to each other exists. Charlotte may long to leave her husband- but for a middle-aged man, even if a rich film star, who barely cracks a smile through the whole film? Would that then not mean her whole eternal pondering mode is a pretentious front?

  And why would Bob be attracted to a vapid little nothing like Charlotte? Yes, the film’s opening shot reveals she has a maximally cute little gluteus, but even a washed up star like him can score better ass by working in B films. This is the essential problem with the screenplay- the character’s covert, but palpable, sexual attractions to each other have no basis which a viewer can believe as genuine. It’s not simply lust, for only Bob could feel that but he’s too impotent to feel anything, and it’s not intellect for Charlotte is clearly smarter than the older Bob who’s addicted to banal apothegms. Part of this problem also comes from the performances of the 2 leads. While Johansson is serviceable as Charlotte Murray is simply doing a slightly more serious version of the familiar off-the-rack Murray persona that he has honed from Meatballs through Groundhog Day to this role. That he was nominated for an Oscar is a testament to hype over substance.

  Then there’s the now infamous end to the film- where Bob is leaving for the airport, spies Charlotte on a Tokyo street, stops his cab, rushes out to her and it seems as if they will ride off in to the sunset. They don’t, of course, as Bob merely whispers something into Charlotte’s ear that the viewer is not privy to. They then part for the rest of their lives. The ending has generally been lauded, & I agree that it is better than the ‘sunset’ sort of ending. But, it only goes half the way it should. Throughout the film Bob successfully hides his lust from Charlotte, only to end up doing the clichéd passionate kiss. The problem with this is three-fold- 1) as stated, the chemistry and attraction claimed for the characters is just a plot device not borne out by the script nor actors’ interactions, and 2) the situation is just so trite that it only points out the fact that the two lead characters are so underdeveloped. 3) Bob is so repressed a character that he probably never would have kissed Charlotte in the first place, but having gone there he would most likely follow through with the grand romantic gesture, not shrink back to his cab. The fact that Charlotte is not swept off her feet, but continues on down the street suggests she, at least, realizes that there was a certain silliness to Bob’s passion for her, as well its inappropriate display.

  The two films the end cribs from are Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown. The difference is that in both the earlier, superior, films the viewer has come to identify with the lead characters and their relationships, so that the emotional denouements feel authentic, not merely tacked on to a film in search of an ending. One would think, given the hype, that the whole film depended on whether or not the whispered end could be decoded- it does not, for your average viewer won’t really care if these two pallid but genial characters, that are so like so many of the people they encounter every day, ever meet again, nor the outcome of their affaire d’coeur if they do.

  Still, as stated, the movie’s visuals are its real charm- the scenes of Tokyo’s night life, neon, the odd angles that Charlotte looks down upon life from in her hotel room, and especially a beautifully filmed, yet hauntingly lonely shot of Bob playing golf in the foreground of Mount Fuji, add almost enough poetic resonance to the characters that the script lacks to pull off a viewer’s belief in their romance. Sofia’s brother made a far superior film a few years ago that dealt with many of the same themes of alienation. CQ, for whatever reasons, did not seem to strike a chord the way Lost In Translation did. The reason for that is probably because CQ was not as ‘serious’ an art film as Translation.

  As for the DVD, it comes with an interview featurette, trailers, a fairly clean video transfer, but no film commentary. I can only guess that Coppola really had no desire to answer the film’s critics, nor any compulsion to explain the film’s flaws. Again, an interesting early film that augurs potential for its director, but the sort of film that in 40 years will rightly be seen as such, not a masterpiece. This is her equivalent to Allen’s Take The Money And Run or Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking On My Door? Using that as a scale expect a film from her worthy of the praise this one got by about 2011 or 2012.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 6/04 Hackwriters website.]

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