In Lost in Translation Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an American movie star, has come to Tokyo to appear in Suntory whisky ads. (Click here for information about the production of whisky in Japan.) He’s been big since the ’70s but the Suntory gig is a sign that his career has faded. Though he’s being paid $2 million, treated like a VIP, and put up in the luxurious Park Hyatt Hotel, he’s glumly alienated from his surroundings, the various Japanese people associated with the whiskey spots, the other English-speakers staying in the hotel, his family, and finally himself. It’s more than jet lag that keeps him up nights downing the product he’s come to promote in the hotel bar. Notes and faxes and calls from his wife of 25 years back home just keep pushing him under.
Murray played a depleted entertainment figure in Groundhog Day (1993) and gave a spectacular performance, investing his trademark sarcasm with hostility that we could see was an extension of self-disgust. Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed Lost in Translation, revisits that role but doesn’t let it grow out of the Bill Murray persona we’re familiar with. The role is barely written at all, with the odd result that whereas in Groundhog Day Murray acted with greater star power than ever playing a dead-ended mid-market weatherman, in Lost in Translation he plays a movie star but doesn’t seem like one. We see why Bob’s depressed, but the movie has taken away from Murray the only way he has to express character. Maybe people have been so impressed by Murray’s low-keyed, unremarkable performance because the fey, listless movie sucks them into Bob’s funk and lowers their expectations.
Which isn’t to say that Coppola doesn’t try to entertain us. In the first half hour she strangely resorts to tacky jokes about the Japanese. They’re short, they talk funny, they’re extremely formal, their slick entertainment is like a parody of American entertainment, which by implication becomes the “real” thing. At best these jokes are mystifying–a beautiful, elegant woman comes into Bob’s room and urges him to “lip her stockings”; when he touches her she screams rape but won’t let him pull away from her–which isn’t to say any of them works. I’ve laughed at this crude shtick when the moviemakers and comedians flouted good taste with impudent gusto, e.g., Jerry Lewis as the buck-toothed specialist from Tokyo in Living It Up (1954) and Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s jabbering, aggrieved neighbor in Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). (It’s inevitably live-action cartoon work.) Coppola doesn’t seem to think she’s made that kind of movie and so the jokes remain inert and seem shockingly low-grade for a movie of sensibility that has invited critics to call it a masterpiece.
Perhaps Coppola intended the Jap jokes (not to put too fine a point on it) to reflect Bob’s wearily detached perspective but not her own. Unfortunately she doesn’t yet have the skill to make such a division in outlook. She can’t distinguish herself from Bob in this way because she wants us to like him. She ends up sinking with him, however, because if you think about it for one minute, the Japanese who speak mangled English in their own country come across as much less provincial than the Americans laughing at them. I cringed for Bob (and Murray) but even more so for the writer-director. The best I’ll give her is that she uses the characters’ discomfort abroad as a symbol for their malaise. All the same, this symbolic system can be irritating because underneath it’s humorlessly unself-aware. What are we supposed to be thinking: “I know just how you feel–first-class travel can be so trying”?
The jokes are odd because it’s not otherwise a pushy movie. Coppola’s first feature as director, The Virgin Suicides (2000), was overnarrated. Every scene was constructed to frame a point, and you saw that point and nothing else. Nothing seemed to just happen so there was no discovery only illustration, and among the castmembers only Kirsten Dunst was truly vibrant in that mode. Lost in Translation is at the other end of the spectrum: most of the scenes have no point and none has any emphasis when it does have a point. Coppola has an exploratory technique but no sense of occasion for employing it, and her technique is not so fabulous in itself you’d be willing to watch anything she shot. (I’ve felt that way about Bertolucci and Scorsese and De Palma … while watching their great movies but not their bad ones.)
Coppola’s movie lingers and wanders as Bob crosses paths with Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), the lonely wife of a celebrity photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) staying in the hotel. If Coppola connects with any aspect of the story it’s with Charlotte’s muted but welling feelings as she sits on the sill of her window looking out at the city, or makes a phone call to a woman who fails to pick up on how upset she is, or is unable to convey to her husband how phony and irritating the bouncy starlet who flirts with him is. (Based on my experience, many educated girls will identify with that last situation.) Charlotte graduated in philosophy from Yale and moved to L.A. with her husband and seems not to know anyone who quite gets her.
Johannson has an open but not very precisely expressive face, which is just right for an intelligent girl with a cautious sense of adventure who feels lost. Charlotte doesn’t dress or carry herself to attract attention but once you start noticing her you can read every thought and feeling. She’s out of place among media jet setters because she isn’t seeking sensation but experiences that will mean something to her. (She makes that phone call after going to a Buddhist monastery and freaking out because she felt nothing.) Coppola is attuned to the pitfall of passivity in feminine sensitivity and the entire movie is paced and structured so as not to crowd that quality, to give the quiet girl her moments. There’s no brutality or melodrama; Charlotte is simply not understood until she starts connecting, slowly, with Bob.
One problem with the movie is that Bob is so underdeveloped the connection with Charlotte doesn’t mean anything to us. (Of course they bond–they’re the only human beings of any race in the picture.) I suppose it’s news when an American movie director shows too much restraint. If drama were synonymous with guesswork and projection on the part of the audience Lost in Translation would be a classic love story. As it is, Coppola’s means are geared entirely to Charlotte; she can’t begin to get at the power buried in a dormant volcano like Bob. (She didn’t do any better with Kathleen Turner as the overbearing religious mother in Virgin Suicides.) The movie passes over the kind of drive it takes to become a star and Murray merely hints at it.
Johannson thus ends up with a huge advantage over Murray. When they’re at a karaoke party Charlotte puts on a pink wig and sings The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” which allows her to move her body in an unaccustomed way, to act seductive. When Murray belts out Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” he can’t use his old Saturday Night Live lounge-loser persona and Bob isn’t sketched in enough for us to understand why he’s making an ass of himself. (It compares badly to the weird self-destructive attack of Michael Caine‘s rendition of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” at the end of Mark Herman’s Little Voice (1998), for instance.) When Coppola does give Murray some physical comedy, involving an aerobics machine, it’s so poorly conceived and staged it doesn’t even register as slapstick.
Coppola has also chosen to make the Charlotte-Bob relationship unconsummated. But by approaching Charlotte so elliptically we can’t tell what she is getting out of the relationship. Another more complicated actress, Dunst, for instance, might have suggested it, but then Charlotte might not have remained the “good girl,” which the contrast with that ditzy, exuberant starlet (who resembles Dunst without the dimples) indicates is important to Coppola. The possibilities are tempting: Sofia Coppola has a right to make a movie about a young woman’s getting in sync with a big-media father figure, but anything along those lines remains inchoate here.
Which may be why, although Charlotte is married, the movie fits neatly beside female romances of self-discovery about presexual girls, such as The Member of the Wedding (1952; Fred Zinnemann‘s amazing movie version of Carson McCullers‘s stage adaptation of her own novel, starring theatrical legends Julie Harris and Ethel Waters, with Brandon DeWilde) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). For a movie about a diffident girl discovering herself via a relationship to a father figure, Audrey Wells’s Guinevere (1999) starring Sarah Polley is much better written and avoids the demure asexuality of Lost in Translation. (Wells’s most recent picture is Under the Tuscan Sun.)
Probably Coppola excluded sex to avoid exploiting Charlotte’s situation. But this just makes the character even more princessy. Coppola takes for granted that Charlotte’s story is absorbing, but aside from her B.A. in philosophy we aren’t told of her ambitions or of anything that she’s tried to do. She’s a somewhat self-conscious, unglamorous, brainy girl; you’d probably be glad if your daughter turned out like her. But what makes her a protagonist? The stupid Japanese jokes tie in to the entertainment tradition Murray used to subvert but not to anything in Charlotte’s character. The few times the movie treats the setting as something besides a bewildering place for a vacation occur when Charlotte goes exploring. She’s especially absorbed by middle-aged women arranging flowers. So does that make Lost in Translation a movie about a bored wife who wants to take classes?
Coppola takes a lot for granted: the ability to go to Japan and stay in nice hotels, not to mention the fact that people will pay attention to you no matter how undeveloped your thoughts remain. I had a similar feeling during her older brother Roman Coppola’s debut movie CQ (2002). CQ is the story of Paul (Jeremy Davies), a confessional experimental moviemaker stuck working as an editor on a shlocky chick-sci fi movie at the end of the ’60s (i.e., Barbarella (1968)). Like Charlotte, Paul is a quiet, well-behaved young adult whose yearning face hints at what he’s fumbling to express. (It’s a Robert Sean Leonard role.) When the flamboyant director of the movie has to be replaced, Paul gets his big chance to direct by constructing a story that makes sense of the fragments in the can. Paul at least has a bad relationship with a French stewardess to give him some shading. And altogether Coppola seems hip to the way a young male artist’s self-seriousness can shut him down emotionally. Unlike Lost in Translation, CQ has a story, some tension. It makes the hero’s feelings more explicit, invites us in, even if we have no choice but to like him.
It’s an educated adolescent male’s romance–he’s all sensitivity and good intentions. Which is why I never believed that Paul would make it as a movie director. Roman and Sofia Coppola are talented enough that it isn’t fair to say they’re merely trading on their marquee-value name (though, unlike their first cousin Nicolas Cage, they haven’t changed it), but they do make movies as if everybody had access to such opportunities. I’m sure no one hands them money on the basis of their name, and no doubt they’ve worked hard at their craft, but I bet they get meetings with agents and executives that other people couldn’t. Sofia has been appearing in her father’s movies since childhood and he shot a script she co-wrote with him in her late teens for his segment of New York Stories (1989), an episode about the tribulations of a New York princess.
Roman and Sofia aren’t just spoiled brats but neither are they geniuses judging by any signs they’ve shown so far. They’re junior dynastic moviemakers, something like legacy admits to an Ivy League school who could have got in on their grades but why take chances. (Fans of Lost in Translation should check out this interview with Sofia.) Maybe if they had to struggle more their movies wouldn’t have that cloud of adolescent narcissism, as if no one had ever done them the favor of telling them their problems aren’t as interesting to other people as they are to themselves.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.