“Lost in Translation” speaks in a universal language that everyone can understand. It deciphers the feelings of absolute loneliness, the importance of meaningful friendships, and the occasional need for self-discovery. Written and directed by Sophia Coppola, daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, “Lost in Translation” is by far, one of the best films of the year. It depicts the relationship between two individuals who are out of their element in a world neither understands, and who must come to terms with the success and failures of their own lives. It’s beautiful, purposeful, and profound. In fact, very few films these days are able to convey such a message with eloquence, heartfelt sincerity, and subtle charm.
Bob Harris is a famous American actor who arrives in Japan without his family to record some endorsements for a Japanese whiskey: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory times.” Awkwardly tall, jet lagged, and bewildered, Bob works his way through a welcoming committee up to his plush, hi-tech hotel room where he plans to crash. But for some reason, he can’t seem to sleep. Meanwhile, just down the hall, another American struggles to fall asleep. Charlotte is the young wife of John (Ribisi), a workaholic photographer who never seems to have any time for her. While John is out, sometimes for days, Charlotte is left all alone in the hotel, pondering her future.
The two individuals described are at different ends of the life spectrum. Bob is going through a mid-life crisis and his excursion to Japan, despite its awkwardness, represents a much needed break from his wife, who seems much more interested in the carpeting for their home than Bob’s trip and well-being. On the other side, Charlotte has been married for two years, is in her early twenties, and has her whole life ahead of her. But doubt settles in as her husband cavorts with other young actresses and models and rarely makes time for her. She’s at a crux in her life, uncertain what the future holds.
Ironically, these two Americans cross paths on numerous occasions. In particular, a brief encounter at the hotel lounge turns into more than either could have imagined – a unique friendship. Together, the two explore Japan and leave their worries behind. They visit video parlors, sing karaoke, dance, and spend many sleepless nights watching Japanese movies together. Of most importance, they explore each other’s relationships and tribulations and help each other refocus and live life to the fullest.
In 1999, Sophia Coppola re-entered Hollywood as the screenwriter and director of The Virgin Suicides, a visually stunning piece dealing with family pressures, suicide, and depression, all under the guise of adolescence. Now, with “Lost in Translation,” her second film in the director’s chair, Coppola has expanded on the dreamy, nostalgic look and feel from her previous work and created a slick, sophisticated drama with universal significance. It’s not about teenage girls contemplating suicide; it’s about a man and a woman, each contemplating and reflecting on their past, present, and future. And it’s heavy stuff for the second time director, particularly since it also represents her first solo effort without her father as producer. But talent runs in the family as Coppola is not only up to the challenge, but emerges brilliantly as a visionary filmmaker, with a unique voice and a unique style.
Helping forge that vision is the technique of cinematographer Lance Acord, using Kodak high-speed stock film to create a very moody, intimate appearance. The scenes are like snapshots – Charlotte sitting in front of the hotel window looking out over Tokyo, Bob arriving in Tokyo amidst the foreign lights and skyline, and Charlotte catching a traditional Japanese wedding in Kyoto. Each is a highly memorable, reflective piece of film as loosely woven as a dream. Coppola also pulls out the stops on the soundtrack, adding the material of Brian Reitzell and company, familiar sounds from “The Virgin Suicides” soundtrack, as well as the original work of Kevin Shields from the group My Bloody Valentine. The music is wonderful in enhancing the ambience and setting a trance inducing tone.
Showing us why he is one of the most versatile actors today, Bill Murray transforms from off beat humorist to sentimentalist. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, allowing us to experience his character’s disarray without having to mutter a single word. And when he does, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As Bob Harris, the wayward actor who finds himself lost inside and out, Murray turns in one of his finest performances…ever. It’s great stuff and it’s accompanied by a rising sensation in Scarlett Johansson.
Johansson is exotically interesting as Charlotte, full of earthy expressions – pouty lips, quiet stares, and enticing beauty. Of course, the amazing thing about both of these performances is that each actor lets their guard down. They are alone and trying to survive in a completely different place, without their friends, where language is a barrier, and where neither can sleep. And they have no security blanket other than each other.
On a personal note, this film is very reminiscent of my experiences in Japan when I was Charlotte’s age. The details are accurate, the people are extremely friendly and polite, and the overall experience is sheer delirium. Ironically, I remember it like it was yesterday – from the temples to the karaoke to the pachinko parlors to the food. It was so culturally enriching and mind blowing that it left a life long impression. Being in such a foreign world can do that to you; it literally changes the way you look at life and this film captures the essence of that experience gracefully.
“Lost in Translation” is a highly engaging, meaningful journey. It effectively communicates the relationship of two souls that connect with one another on an intellectual level without deviating into the Hollywood trap of contrived romantic climaxes. The film is important because it’s real – being lost in life and finding someone who will listen and inspire you, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. And for that, you don’t necessarily have to go halfway around the world to discover.
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