Lost in Translation
review by Elias Savada, 12 September 2003

Toronto International Film Festival 2003


Sofia Coppola's second feature treads tangentially along the isolation and depression themes that encompassed The Virgin Suicides, her debut film, which deconstructed the family unit within the confines of a maximum-security household. It's actually much closer in tone to Doris Dörrie's little-seen 2000 effort Enlightment Guaranteed (Erleuchtung Garantuert), which followed two German brothers culturally adrift in Japan, even covering the some of the same footsteps and territory in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Lost in Translation is a more engaging and spontaneous production for Coppola, albeit one with the same low-key cinematic approach. The semi-sweet film feels like a continuous slide show of cinematic snippets showcasing two sleepless Americans -- Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a once-popular Hollywood actor in the 1970s now reduced to shilling whiskey in a far-off, Oriental galaxy, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young Yale-educated wife of a self-involved commercial photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) to the rich and famous, who drags her along on a business trip and then dumps her, alone, in the Park Hyatt Tokyo -- who share life's restlessness as their souls and paths intertwine. Lost, a film and title with obvious multiple definitions (culturally, socially, romantically -- in a unconsummated, Brief Encounter, way) offers snippets of the two leads, individually and together, as they cope with the strange world around them. The film does have a linear story in a week-in-the-life sort of way, but you could easily re-edit scenes within the film and get the same effect.

Bob, caught in a clinical case of mid-life crisis, half-heartedly wants out of a twenty-five-year marriage, whose long-distance conversations with his at-least-I'm-trying wife border on emotional incompatibility. "Do I need to worry about you, Bob? she wonders. "Only if you want to," he responds, hoping she'll take the hint and maybe release him from marital and family responsibilities. Charlotte fights back tears of depression with a happy face of makeup and strolls about the neon-encrusted city, but her smiles are few. Despite being in a civilized and well-populated metropolis, both appear to be suffering from emotional and cultural distress, hoping for solace within each other and perhaps wishing for a Big Life Change. Their mutual insomnia finds them sharing drinks and smokes and more drinks and smokes at the hotel lounge bar, drawing deeper into wispy and honestly frank conversation about their lives and the relationships in which they have entangled themselves.

It's a quite charming, disjointedly entertaining piece, with Coppola spicing it up with some wispy visual and verbal contrasts: Murray towering about the Japanese in an elevator sequence, or trying to get a more succinct translation from a Japanese director spouting sentences of Japanese instructions at home for a television commercial, yet all his gets from his translator is that he should look at the camera "with intensity." There's a hilarious bit with a ditsy Japanese hooker and another with a crackpot television host (think Chris Tucker from The Fifth Element). Karaoke (would you believe Murray "singing" Roxy Music's More Than This?) and hospital waiting rooms also make for some additional enlightenment.

Murray's subdued acting makes it one of his most enjoyable roles, rivaling that as Mr. Herman J. Blume in Rushmore. Of course, with Murray, the comedy comes in all shapes and sizes (and ghosts), and his dramatics roles (Razor's Edge) are generally forgotten. Here we see his softer, matured side to great advantage. Johannson, who has tended to score well in the dozen or so films you may have spotted her in, shines as the young wife stuck in a lonely situation, yet daring to show her more graceful side. In a bit part, Anna (Scary Movie) Faris is an up-and-coming American actress and close (perhaps too close) friend of Ribisi's character, who gives empty-headedness new meaning as she talks of her inane similarities with Keanu Reeves, with whom she has starred in a film she is promoting in Japan.

Lost in Translation is a poignant, curious tale of jet-lagged souls searching for a cure for life's ills. They may not find the right medicine to get on with their lives, but there's a lot of charm and detail for them; hope for better days.

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:


Written and
Directed by:

Sofia Coppola

Bill Murray
Scarlett Johansson
Giovanni Ribisi
Anna Faris

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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