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Lost in Translation

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So what was the big fuss? I mean, really?

Yeah, Lost in Translation is a nice little movie. But jeez, what a ‘damning with faint praise’ comment that is – ‘nice’. I’ve thought about it though, and while it’s not exactly stretching my vocabulary to say that, it is at least honest. Something I’m not sure every critic was with themselves when they sat down to review this flick.

Who knows, perhaps it was Scarlett Johansson’s distinctly Lolita-like qualities that got them. More likely it was a big wish fulfillment exercise for those critics who’ve served time in foreign hotel rooms, staring at four walls, surfing through indecipherable TV stations before adjourning to the hotel bar to order hard liquor, then charging the bar tab to their hosts. And don’t forget the in-room porn, too.

“If only,” they may have muttered to themselves before slipping into a booze-induced coma fantasy, “there was a sexy… young… cute… bored… photographer’s wife here in the hotel. That I could meet by accident… she’d be enamoured by my wit, my devil-may-care-attitude, my receding hairline and most of all – my saggy face… mmuwwrph.”

Not exactly outside of the realms of possibility, is it? That the Eberts and Denbys and Knowles’ of this world took a look at rumpled Bill Murray up there on the screen and said “If only”.

They do say write what you know, and I guess it applies to the film as well as the criticism of it – I doubt Sofia Coppola or Bill Murray had to think too hard to imagine themselves stuck in a foreign hotel room somewhere, their every whim paid for, only leaving the womb to experience the natives or attend press conferences. At times like those, you start to wish that someone – anyone – interesting would walk into your life.

It’s a common fantasy. I know, I’ve been there myself – in fact I’ve been in a hotel in Tokyo myself, and admittedly, that’s one thing Sofia Coppola got spot on. Tokyo, that is (and it’s hotels) which couldn’t have been that hard considering she went to Tokyo to film it. No cheap Warner Bros. backlot for this young lady – she took her camera crew all the way to the other side of the world to film the foreign people.

Didn’t much understand what she found there either, it seems, and I have to agree with Odeon’s Damien on this one, that’s what bugged me most for about the first hour. Yes, I get it, Japan is an odd place, people there don’t speak English too well, their TV is weird, there’s lots of them, they have strange arcades and bars, there’s plenty of neon…. I didn’t learn much more than I might watching You Only Live Twice on a wet Sunday afternoon. What I did learn is that apparently Jim Morrison is still influencing screenwriters, as his maxim “People are strange, when you’re a stranger” could be applied to the whole film.

Almost all of the incidental details are bang on, of course, like the frenzied business card exchanges, the hundreds of hotel staff who greet you (even if they don’t know you’re a big-shot movie star), the restaurants where you order by pointing and the lush hotel bars with low lit tables and sinister looking businessmen. Plus crap English speaking support bands. I saw it all in my week in Tokyo on business, and Lost in Translation brought it flooding back. The only things missing were the toilet with the heated seat and hose that squirted up my bum, the free Japanese newspaper that gave me a headache when I tried to read it and the fact that I seemed to get fish at every meal, regardless of what I ordered.

Honestly, given just a small twist Lost in Translation could have been National Lampoon’s Japanese Vacation (with Rusty and Audrey now played by DJ Qualls and Anne Hathaway, respectively; we’ll have to see if there’s a hole in Chevy’s schedule), complete with Rusty getting drunk and doing karaoke, Audrey getting felt up on a rush-hour train and causing a near riot, and Ellen ending up in a Love Hotel with Clark, getting her key swiped, then bursting in on a party of salarymen in her underwear. Let’s shoot this sucker!

Unfortunately Lost in Translation stays firmly in ‘bittersweet, thoughtful drama’ territory, with Bill’s movie star Bob (sadly lacking his aquatic partner Gil) being so thoroughly confused by the Japanese habit of replacing ‘R’ with ‘L’ (“Lip my stocking” etc), that he has a mid-life crisis, which means cruising Tokyo’s streets with Scarlett Johansson’s pouting, intellectually underappreciated Charlotte.

She’s bored because she’s got a rich husband and she’s in one of the most fascinating cities in the world, so obviously she has nothing to do except sit around her room all day listening to self-help books on the search for the soul. Little does she know that the key to inner happiness is hovering behind her in the lift one day, and before long Bob gets up the nerve to talk to her – the rest is your movie.

I sound bitter. But if I am at all it’s just because of the big, Oscar-talk-fuelled build up this has gotten. It’s good, it just ain’t great, is all I’m saying; it gets extra points because it’s got Bill, and because it’s set in Tokyo (which, let no-one tell you otherwise, is one of the coolest places on the planet). It just loses a bunch more points for portraying the Japanese so typically, and for refusing to raise its tourist observations above the level of ‘Let’s Go Japan’.

However, when the camera’s trained on the actors Lost in Translation is nicely observed (there’s that word again) pleasing to the eye and very well acted. It just doesn’t linger in the brain. If anyone other than Sofia Coppola was making it you’d either have Bob ‘n’ Charlotte eloping together at the end, or more likely you’d cast Bob a whole lot younger (Ethan Hawke?) and call the whole thing Lost, Like, in Tokyo. They’d get together before reel three, then.

As it is, Lost in Translation felt to me like the last few moments before you fall dead asleep, lying on a hotel room bed drunk after a sponsored bar excursion – wondering just what the hell you said to that rather attractive PR girl, and deciding that one way or the other it doesn’t matter, because booze is great and so are you.

At the time it feels nice, but when you wake up you only remember things in flashes, and you tell yourself you won’t do that again – but you know, deep down, that you’ll end up in exactly the same situation before too long.

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About Stephen 'Tagline' Reid

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    All intellectual dissection of the movie
    aside,I thought it was a well done flick
    and very entertaining.This is as much as
    can be hoped for in today’s video arena.
    At least it wasn’t A)A dumb teen flick,
    B)A dumb re-write of a European comedy
    or C)an even dumber ten flick a la “Euro
    Trip”.And what the hey,Ms.Coppola skillz
    behind the camera are certainly better
    than those in front of them.

  • Maybe they’ll make a sequel Lost In Translation II in which Bill Murray’s character, still suffering from insomnia, puts on the DVD of Lost In Translation I and finally gets some sleep.