Lost in Translation, a gem of a film, is a triumph for two individuals at opposite ends of their careers: Bill Murray, in a performance that marks the culmination of a long and impressive career, and Sofia Coppola, daughter of you-know-who, in a magisterial directorial effort in just her second film, a follow-up to Virgin Suicides. This is a film that captures our attention with its subtle, rich depiction of character, with its understated dialogue, and its dominant moods, which convey an unusual complexity of emotion. And it ends perfectly.
Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a Hollywood star, well past his prime, but still a big enough international name that the Japanese are willing to pay him handsomely to film a commercial to promote whiskey. Adrift from a family he rarely sees because of travel, he drinks heavily and suffers from sleeplessness. At a bar in his Tokyo hotel, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johanssen), a young, recently married woman, also an insomniac, who is beginning to realize how little she knows or likes about her superstar photographer husband. Relieved to have found someone equally dislocated, the two strike up an odd friendship, which is by turns charming, whimsical, reflective, and quite humorous.
On the surface, the title refers to the inability of the American characters in the film to translate Japanese speech or strongly accented English into intelligible English. Bob and Charlotte are frequently at a loss in the midst of an alien culture. Communicative gaps such as those caused by foreign languages are rich sources of comedy and Murray is more than up to the task here. As the wry and befuddled Harris, Murray confirms his status as one of our best comic actors. In one stretch of humor, covering the numerous takes involved in Bob’s recording of the whiskey commercial, Murray does very little talking. Mildly frustrated at the director’s absurd demands that he mimic the “rat pack,” he simply plays along with mock imitations of Dino and Sinatra.
But the alienation of the main characters from the wider culture signifies a deeper sense of isolation and disorientation. These are individuals who find others and themselves opaque and who harbor the suspicion that there is nothing left to be discovered. The Tokyo of the film is oppressively crowded, with tall buildings covered in fluorescent neon lights, and with tight, narrow, highly mechanized hotel rooms. The soundtrack, which consists mostly of karaoke versions of songs such as “Midnight at the Oasis” and “So Into You,” heightens the sense of unreality.
Like his character in Groundhog Day, Murray’s character here is trapped, unable to move forward, living parasitically off his own past success. He ponders images of himself–in dubbed Japanese versions of his films and on advertisement posters–with bemused sadness rather than triumph. His married life has followed the arc of his career. His wife sends him faxes at 4 A.M. and FedEx mailings with suggestions concerning the color coordination of his home study. A conversation with his wife, during which he expresses his desire for change, ends with her saying, “Do I need to worry about you?” to which he responds, “Only if you want to.” She responds matter-of-factly, “I got things to do.”
In their sleeplessness, Bob and Charlotte share a bed. She admits, “I’m stuck” and asks, “Does it get easier?” When he says, “Yes,” she responds, “Yeah, right. Look at you.” In a grave tone, he confesses that his life became more complicated once he had kids: “The day your first child is born is the most terrifying day of your life. Your life is gone, never to return.” Just as seriously, he adds, “but they’re the most delightful people you would ever want to meet in your life.” After some moments of motionless silence, he puts his hand gently on Charlotte’s foot and comments, “You’re not lost.”
The movie sets us up for an American Beauty plot, wherein a jaded family man recovers his youth in the pursuit of a teen beauty. But Lost in Translation is about human beings, not suburban cutouts. In fact, the film nearly ignores sex, treating it with the sort of indifference that comes, not from excessive indulgence, but from the recognition that the sexual act is beside the point, at best incidental to the quest. In this case, the quest is for companionship, for a renewed experience of humanity, and for a recovery of an orientation or sense of direction in one’s life.
The kind of pornographic quest that pervades so much of our culture is directly mocked in a scene where Bob waits for Charlotte at a Japanese dance/strip club. As lewd lyrics play, the dancer contorts her body in ways that make her nudity entirely unappealing. Charlotte arrives, they watch the dancer, boredom overtakes them, she suggests they leave, and, as they do, Bob leans over the dancer and says, half-seriously, half-facetiously, “Thank you.”
Charlotte studied philosophy in college, is mildly attracted to Buddhism, and is reading a book, A Soul’s Search, which teaches that “your soul selected your life’s purpose before you got here.” Yet, this, too, seems beside the point. The movie is not burdened with pretentious philosophical speculation; in fact, it takes a nice shot at Hollywood’s shallow, opportunistic embrace of Eastern thought, amply on display in American Beauty. A hollow soul of an actress, who insists that she’s not anorexic even as she takes the suggestion as a supreme compliment of her looks, drones on in an interview about her love of Buddhism and reincarnation. Then she gushes about how much she loves working with Keanu and how much they have in common, since they both live in L.A. and have dogs.
Bob Harris has been living in that Hollywood world for far too long and he has paid a price, evident in the antique, forlorn expression on his face. Charlotte has a much fresher appearance; yet, having seen and seen through much already, she is old before her time and near despair. Whatever note of hope there is in the film comes not from a clear affirmation of renewed purpose, but from the negative but potentially liberating judgment that all is not lost, that it is entirely too soon to write off these lives. Lost in Translation offers more than a glimpse of what it might mean for Hollywood to recover a sense of film making as a craft.