the Goliard

October 2003

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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation is a film that would seem to have all the ingredients of an excellent romantic comedy. Scarlett Johansson is one of the more attractive and intriguing young actresses to arrive on the scene in years and Bill Murray is well, Bill Murray. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, it co-stars the talented Giovanni Ribisi and convincing bimbo in training Anna Faris. Set against the back drop hubbub of modern day Tokyo with Murray as a dead panning, sardonic ex Hollywood star, wise cracking and drinking his way to the Asian commercial market and Johannson as the bored young wife of Ribisiís photog, stuck in underwear clad exile of a ritzy hotel as they bide their time, battle insomnia, and wile away hours in the bar. A recipe, it would seem, for a successful romantic comedy no? But while the film delivers both the romantic and the comedy, slaves to the genre are sure to be disappointed. The couple never is sexually intimate you see and when the credits run we don't even get the feeling they will live happily ever after, or indeed, will ever see each other again. However, perhaps specifically for these reasons, Lost in Translation is one of the more refreshing movies to come along in quite awhile. 

Murray plays Bob Harris, a married fifty something with children back at home who was thought to be somebody once and continues to cash in on that fact even though his life has long since ceased to be of much interest to him. Harris seems to see a mild humor in his current pathetic state as he is given the white glove treatment by the Japanese but takes little joy in it and possibly regards it as the final piece of evidence of the sellout he has become. It isnít that he seems overly bitter or self loathing, just acutely aware that his life has arrived, (perhaps due to his own laziness) at a place where he is able to coast along, putting forth little effort for great economic but very little emotional reward. He half heartedly deadpans his way through the cultural immersion dutifully playing the part asked of him by the Japanese handlers and drinking enough whiskey to get him through the day. The nights however are long and he finds himself forever awake pondering his fate and flipping through channels where he often encounters himself in dubbed over old movies (in one case conversing with a chimp, an indication perhaps that even at the height of his career, the writing was on the wall). 

Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a young, recently married philosophy student from Yale who is overly cognizant of the fact that she hasnít found her way yet and is spending the mean time following her self important photographer husband on his assignments. Giovanni Ribisi playing her lesser half however has little time for her, what with his exciting jobs shooting over the hill rock bands and B movie actresses so she finds herself mostly staring out over the skyline from the hotel window and wandering through the strange city alone. With her snoring husband beside her, she also has trouble sleeping nights and finds herself heading down to the bar to listen to bad lounge singing and try her hand at smoking and drinking. She encounters Harris there of course and as they exchange witticisms, they begin to sense the similarities in their situations almost immediately despite being aware of the inevitable separation in the paths of their lives. They begin hanging out together in the engulfing weirdness of a Japanese culture that doesnít seem to make much sense to either of them. The stage is set it would seem for that feel good romance which most people who attend such films expect. 

Sofia doesnít fall for it however for she is after a greater prize. She is attempting to make a film that is real. And while it isnít any great revelation that real life can be frustrating, it is rare that a movie successfully imparts upon the audience those very emotions as they come bearing down on the actors in the story. Bob and Charlotte are in unsatisfying places in their lives and find respite in each otherís company but meeting each other is not a fix all. They are each people with large holes to fill if they are to move forward from the slice of life revealed by this film and go on to lead the challenged and rewarding existences that most people hope for but few attain. And perhaps a portion of those holes could have been filled by the continued company of the other. However Sofia seems to know that strangers that share strange moments together in strange places donít necessarily translate well into happy couples for ever after when forced to endure normal circumstances and some are even smart enough to realize this at the time they go through it. She also seems aware that often in life many roads just arenít taken and even though it is fun to think in retrospect how much better things might have been if they were, the moments leading up to that fork can be memorable on their own and worthy of attention. In the penultimate scene as Bob runs after Charlotte, just before heading back to the US, hugs her tightly for the first and last time and whispers something in her ear that the audience isnít allowed to hear but that causes tears to run down her face, it is as powerful a cinematic moment as any couple riding off into the sunset has ever been. They met, they compared notes, they benefited from each otherís company, and despite a distinct attraction and the temptation to take it to another level (by both characters and director), they resisted the urge for whatever reason and moved on. Will Bob and Charlotte regret it? Hard to say. Will the romantic comedy seekers resent them for it? Probably. This reviewer for one however is glad they didn't succumb.

It is also worth mentioning that there is plenty of comedy in the film, some of it of the highest order. The clash between modern Japan and Murray's Harris provide many a chuckle and, although he resists the urge to completely ham it up as only he can in order to stay within character, there are plenty of times when we get to laugh at his bemusement at the cultural differences. And there's romance too as long as one isn't overly stringent with their definitions.


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