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LOST IN TRANSLATION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris
Director:  Sofia Coppola
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  February 3, 2004

“Do I need to worry about you, Bob?”

“Only if you want to.”

Film ****

Sofia Coppola’s first film as a writer and director The Virgin Suicides remains one of my favorite films, as well as one of the least favorite reviews I ever wrote.  I often look back over it with a great sigh of disappointment, realizing I utterly failed to capture in words how much the picture meant to me.  Now that Sofia has come back with another offering that proves she’s grown tremendously as an artist, I can only hope I’ll be able to say the same.  So here goes.

Lost in Translation is an eloquent, comic love letter to the lonely hearted.  It’s a love affair with all love and no affair; a film that intrinsically understands that life is made up of sacred moments that don’t necessarily lead into or out of anything else, but that end up occupying very special places in the fabric of our lives.

It looks at a chapter in the lives of two people who could have been anyone anywhere, but just happened to come together at the right time and place to share a spell of fleeting magic.  Bob Harris (Murray) is a 50 something one time American movie star who has found a new if less satisfying kind of success by shooting commercials for whiskey in Japan.  Charlotte (Johansson) is a twenty-ish wife of a photographer (Ribisi), who is in Tokyo on assignment.  Though each is clearly in a different stage of life, each is plagued by insomnia, insecurity, and facing an uncomfortable self evaluation.

The two occupy the same frame a number of times before they actually meet.  The script and the pacing of the film give us some time to explore both characters in their fish-out-of-water scenarios, and see what their lives are like.  Bob comes across as a guy capable of both wit and charm, but who seems too lost and weary to really conjure it up.  His 25 year marriage is only glimpsed through faxes sent by his wife of designs for a new studio, carpet samples sent by Fed Ex, and pleasant if hollow conversations on the phone made more difficult by the time difference.

Charlotte has just finished college and is playing supportive wife to her somewhat self-absorbed husband, who seems to love her but regard her as an obstacle as well.  Both Charlotte and Bob spend a lot of time alone in hotel rooms; the language and custom barriers aren’t particularly inviting.

So they come together here and there, striking up bits of conversation and eventually finding a kind of solace in one another.  But this isn’t the kind of movie where two sad people fall in love, fall into bed, and live happily ever after.  Each has a life and a resolve to make that life work.  But in the meantime, they share a sweet chemistry and a developing affection, even if they can’t express it much more than a head on a shoulder or a hand on a foot.  In one of the best and most emotionally rich sequence, they lie side by side in bed.  They haven’t done anything and they won’t do anything, but they bare their souls for the kind of intimacy most movies would rather gloss over in order to get to the sex.

Bill Murray is beyond wonderful in this movie.  It’s no surprise to fans of Rushmore that the comic genius can also act and act well, but whereas I regarded his performance in Rushmore as a delightful surprise, I see his work in Lost in Translation as a shining moment of pure revelation.  He finds all the right notes in playing Bob, burying his sense of humor slightly underneath an aura of pathos, but not buried so deep that it can’t awaken when Charlotte brings out flashes of the man he once was and could be again.  Just watch this movie, and afterwards, think about Stripes or Caddyshack…it’ll boggle your mind enough to make you want to sit down.  His Oscar nomination is unquestionably well deserved.

Robbed of a nomination, however, was Scarlett Johansson, who not only seems to grow more beautiful in every film she appears in, but more confident and astute as an actress.  She’s more than a counterpart to Bill Murray’s character in this film; she’s kind of a quiet muse that helps lead him towards becoming real again.

I’ve mostly dealt with the movie’s dramatic aspects, but be assured, this is also a comedy.  The brilliance of Sofia Coppola as a writer and director is not so much the fact that she brings an honest examination of loneliness and connection to the screen, but that she finds the humor in it as well.  The overall effect is one of superb warmth and tenderness.  I’ve rarely been so sad to see a movie end.  Had it been six hours long, I would have cherished every minute spent with those terrific characters in that wonderfully beautiful and strange setting.

Much has been made of the finale, where Bob catches up with Charlotte one last time on his way out of the city.  They tearfully embrace, and he whispers something to her that we cannot hear.  “Okay?” he asks.  “Okay,” she responds.  It’s a wonderful way of not only suspending a moment in time for them, but for us as well.  Whenever we think back to that scene and ponder the missing piece of dialogue in our heads, we’ll be revisiting the same place as them in our hearts.

I’d like to think he said, “We’ll always have Tokyo.”

Video **1/2

Universal seems to have dropped the ball a little on this anamorphic transfer.  Though it boasts a handful of gorgeous scenes, particularly the colorful neon lit Tokyo of night, there are many interior shots that come across as murky and muddy.  The darker the scene or image (even if it’s just a man’s black suit), the less detail is apparent.  There is even some shimmer and undue grain from time to time.  The inclusion of a DTS audio track might have forced a little extra compression, but the disc might have been better served with more room left for the video presentation.

Audio ***

The two 5.1 soundtracks are perfectly good…the rear stage opens up a few crowd scenes nicely.  The dialogue was always clean and consistent, and the music gave it some dynamic range, but I don’t think the subwoofer was harnessed very much if at all.

Features **

The disc contains 5 deleted scenes, a conversation with Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray in Rome, a behind the scenes home video, a trailer, and a music video.

Summary:

Lost in Translation proves there’s no sophomore jinx for the talented Sofia Coppola, who penned and directed an original, memorable and unusual love story.  With top notch acting by her two leads added to the mix, it’s no wonder this picture racked up four big Oscar nods and has become one of the year’s most lauded films.  Highly recommended.