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Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation: Bummer Trip

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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.

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About Alan Dale

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Alan, authoritative as always – your email address has been bouncing. Do you have a new one or do I need to do something to “white list” mine of something?

  • “The only human beings of any race in the movie?”

    Explain, please. I have not yet seen the film. Are you saying that the Murray and Johannson characters are the only people focused on in the film?

  • Thanks for writing.

    They are the only characters the movie focuses on, but I meant more than that. The Japanese are all freakish and the other Americans are treated as people that Bob and Charlotte (and we in the audience) wouldn’t want to connect with. Bob and Charlotte are the only people who seem like people, like “us.” Everyone else is either grotesque or dense, viewed not subjectively through Bob and Charlotte’s alienation but as though objectively they would cause anyone to become alienated.

  • Paul

    Having lived in Japan for several years, I can say the film got the feel of everything about as right as can be, down to the goofy Japanese TV shows.

    “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. ”

    The funny thing about all that is that it’s Japanese humor. If you’ve ever watched a lot of Japanese TV, you’d recognize the schtick right away. The movie’s humor is structured exactly like Japanese humor. The film could’ve been a Japanese television production and featured on the roundtable shows that come on NHK at night. What would’ve made the movie perfect is, right after the story completed, we went back to a studio with about 8-10 commentators of varying ages and sex talking about what they’d just seen right before they cut to the two chicks doing movie reviews topless in a bubble bath.

    Most of the movie, apart from a few of the character’s relationships and interactions, feels like an homage.

  • Thanks for your comment. Interesting to know about Japanese culture, but it doesn’t change my view of the movie, for several reasons. 1) Even if the movie renders Japanese humor accurately that doesn’t make the humor or the movie good. A Japanese movie set in America could accurately render the comedy of our TV sitcoms and big movie comedies and still be lame. 2) Nothing Sofia Coppola has said in interviews indicates she has your level of acquaintance with Japanese culture. So I’m not sure it was her intention in any case. This matters because 3) in the movie it’s a question of perspective: the Japanese may tell jokes at their own expense that are just like the ones in the movie, but Coppola isn’t Japanese, the movie was made for American audiences, and in our pop culture history those jokes have an entirely different resonance. And finally 4) the shift in tone between the Japanese jokes and the quiet bond b/w Charlotte and Bob is jarring to me. Maybe Coppola didn’t intend it to be, but that then doesn’t speak well for her control as writer/director.

    Alan Dale

  • Paul

    I agree with you on the jarring break with the first half of the story and the relationship between Murray and his lady friend. The movie lost my interest at that point. I only went to see it because I miss Japan terribly and the movie presented me with an opportunity to see it again.

    What I think it did get right is the utter strangeness you feel the first time you’re there. The place is alien and I think she got the feel of what you’re thinking as you try to take it all in. The people are strange, the culture doesn’t make any sense and the look of the place is garish. It’s not until you’ve been there awhile that you start to learn and appreciate why things are the way they are, but at the beginning, it’s just strange. That’s what I got from it and it reminded me of what I was feeling and experiencing when I first got there. Perhaps that was the jive I was picking-up and I just projected my own back-history with the place onto the film. In hindsight, I think I was seeing something that wasn’t there.

    The Japanese don’t really have the same race-conscious sensitivity as we do, unless it has to do with the Koreans (but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms), and their entertainment reflects their perceptions and mores. They’re not angels by any means. They have a superiority complex that would make a Nazi blush. You should see how Westerners are employed in their entertainment. It’s like someone brought a chimp or other exotic creature onto the set for them to gawk at and mock. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but that element of the barbarous and hairy gaijin still enjoys a strong undercurrent in Japanese culture and society.

    I agree with you that the movie’s first half would come off as a bunch of Jap jokes to people who are ignorant of the culture, but at the same time, it’s a fairly honest depiction of what a lot of Americans and other Westerners think of the place and the people when they first get there.

  • While I appreciate Alan’s very in-depth analysis of this movie, I’m left cold by what I read. I enjoyed this film on many levels, and am wondering if it’s actually ok to disagree with Alan.

    I thought Murray’s performance was strong and believable. That his character never comes across as “a movie star” in the film worked perfectly for me. Bob Harris is 20-25 years past his prime, and this character makes no illusion of how bored he seems to be with it all, yet he’s in for the long haul, so the bed is made (years ago), and he lies in it. Never once did I feel “sucked in” to Bob Harris because of his listlessness. I loved the scene at the end when the attractive American woman recognized him and wanted to say hello, and his attention span with her was maybe 2-3 seconds. It’s one of many moments in the film where I found his character so convincingly believable. The same applies to Johansson’s performance. The sad, empty expression on her face in so many of the scenes said it all for me – a life undefined up to that moment, a marriage going nowhere, a lost soul. I can relate to that so well that believing in her took no effort. I often found that when she smiled in the film, it required an enormous effort on her part, a true sign of feeling knotted up inside and not at peace with herself. One of the gifts of the film is that there is real chemistry between these two actors, and it almost bleeds on the screen.

    Alan, please forgive me, but I’m bone weary of reading reviews that suggest it’s critical or necessary to compare (or even be aware of) a past performance of similar merit in order to appreciate (or not) the performance at hand. Bill Murray’s performance in Groundhog Day is, to me, irrelevant, a non-issue. I don’t need to know about what he did there to appreciate what he does here, and frankly, I don’t care.

    The criticism of the depiction of the Japanese characters doesn’t wash with me. I was not offended or put off by what I saw, nor did the behaviour of the locals in, say, the hotel, feel odd, or even feel to me like their presence had any impact on the movie other than helping to set the location and the feeling – far away from anything familiar, alone, and lonely. How can I not expect locals in Tokyo to speak broken English? Harris’s red carpet treatment by the hotel staff also worked for me – I mean, this guy’s being paid $2 million to hawk whiskey; I wouldn’t doubt that those paying him would tell the hotel staff to treat him like a god. That he seems bored and at times bothered by their collective attention made sense – he’s way past his prime, and experiences like this one have lost their meaning for him, if they ever had any.

    Regarding the Japanese humour, I’ll agree that the scene with the woman sent to Murray’s hotel room was presented poorly, and made little sense. I found it annoying and distracting, a waste of time. Beyond that, I had no problems with what I saw, including the whacked out, kinetic Japanese talk show. If anything, the talk show sequence illustrated how far off the map Bob Harris was from pop culture reality at that moment in his declining career, and to what lengths he might still be willing to go to satisfy his sponsors, agents, etc.

    Alan, begging your indulgence, but I have no idea what you are trying to tell us with these words: “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.” I mean, I have two university degrees, I’m not THAT stoopid, yet reading those words makes me feel like I was staring into the eyes of a chicken.

    What’s interesting to me is statements like, “4) the shift in tone between the Japanese jokes and the quiet bond b/w Charlotte and Bob is jarring to me.” My response to that is, “said shift in tone wasn’t jarring to me.” I mean, that’s it, right? I don’t know why it wasn’t jarring or disturbing or offensive, but, well, it wasn’t. It worked for me.

    I can’t remember reading such a well-crafted and thoughtful review that at the same time seemed so vitriolic. Did I completely miss something here? The characters portrayed by Johansson and Murray are perhaps the two most real people I’ve seen on screen all year. I had not a shred of difficulty believing in them, and I adored the way Sofia Coppola took her time presenting them to us with a slow buildup, until they finally connect in the bar in the hotel. In addition, the sound and music in this film is absolutely haunting at times. I’ve seen 69 movies this year, and this is easily one of the best, certainly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding. Well, for me, anyway.

    There’s more I’d like to say, but frankly, I’m overwhelmed by this review. I’ve submitted a smattering of small reviews to Blogcritics.com, and I know Alan’s contributions are of major league caliber. I doubt my so-called “reviews” would qualify for the minor leagues. I almost feel that by daring to disagree, I’m being insubordinate to a superior officer. I’m pretty much just a lunch-bucket schmuck who enjoys his pop culture in regular doses. I’m afraid that by admitting I actually like this movie, and that I like it a lot, I could get spanked and sent to bed without my supper.

  • rena ancona

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, learned and useful review. My partner and I felt insulted by the superficiality of the direction and the ignorance of film language displayed in this adolescent self absorbed film. I read somewhere that she had the last word in the final cut. Would an experienced editor have allowed scenes after scenes of utter vapidity? But why the nearly universal blindness of a majority of critics???

  • Thanks for writing. My hunch is that the critics are praising the movie by association to Sofia’s father. They’re hoping for another era like the ’70s, a breakthrough moment in American movies. They’re hallucinating genius. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who wasn’t impressed, esp. during the awards season when this dud is being showered with prizes.

  • I enjoyed “Lost In Translation”, but obviously your milage may vary. It was a modestly budgeted movie about a couple of people in a foreign place over a couple of days.

    I do have a couple of comments where I think you are flat out wrong.

    The movie captured perfectly the experience of a North American in Tokyo. I spent nearly a week there a couple of years ago, and it was exactly like the experience in the film.

    Tokyo is familiar enough to constantly keep you off balance, smacking you with strangeness, lost in translation, so to speak.

    Many Japanese take English courses taught by people who don’t speak English, with the result being many Japanese think they speak English, but they don’t. Also gaijin are seen as an opportunity to practise their English.

    There are no street signs or building numbers, and few streets which run in a straight line. You spend the entire time feeling lost. I remember seeing a district map outside a subway station which had a red light and an arrow saying “You Are Here”, the rest of the map was in kanji.

    Japanese teevee really is that weird. I can’t provide any experience of the call-girls, but given hentai, the scene seems plausible. And I’m guessing you don’t kareoke much.

    So why, if the scenes about the foreignness of Tokyo are realistic, is this wrong?

    As for the disappointment with the quality of the yuks, again, I’m puzzled, since I didn’t see “Lost In Translation” as a comedy.

    As for Coppola family connections, have you looked at Francis Ford Coppola’s track record (he’s bankrupted his studio), he’s produced mostly mediocre crap, which has done poorly at the box office (the real measure of success in Hollywood) and his two greatest movies “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” where both considered to be disasters during production (see “Hearts of Darkness”). If anything, Coppola’s name would be a deterrent to entering the film business.

    Also if you want to draw a comparison to another Bill Murray character, Herman Blume in “Rushmore” is closer to Bob Harris than Phil Connors.