We snagged a great deal on the DVD of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation and tossed it up on the screen last night. On the surface, it’s remarkable that such a modest film would garner four Academy Award nominations — best actor for Bill Murray, directing for Coppola, best picture, and best original screenplay for Coppola, which she won — because there is very little plot, very little action, very little romance and not all that much comedy (of the LOL variety, anyway) for an ostensible “romantic comedy.” But we were captivated by it nonetheless, and after a night’s sleep of contemplation I have some thoughts on why.
Bill Murray stars as a middle-aged American movie star in Tokyo to shoot a commercial campaign for Suntory whiskey (which is actually pretty crappy, by the way: the Japanese do a great job on beer and sake, not so hot on liquor). Murray has boiled down his screen persona to a series of compact semiotic gestures and phrases which invoke earlier roles where the parameters of that persona were staked out: hipster who shrewdly grasps the advantages of respectability, charming but mercurial, laconic, alternately shameless and self-effacing, glib, wry and sardonic but burdoned with sincerity and deep feeling. All of that is conveyed here with a remarkable economy worthy of kabuki.
Murray’s character performs his pitchman’s duties — for which he is receiving $2 million –with a combination of embarrassment and dutifulness and the most overtly funny moments of the film arise from his dealing with the absurdities of trying to give his Japanese handlers what they want for their money as all nuance and subtlety is “lost in translation” between the detailed instructions being orated in Japanese by directors and photographers and his English-only ears.
This, of course, is the central metaphor of the film and the source of its tensile strength and artistry: it beautifully and atmospherically conveys by showing rather than the more traditional telling, that exposure to alien culture (with language at the foundation of culture) disorients us, disrupts our habits, undermines our assumptions, and thereby forces a reexamination of the foundations of self, of our very perception of reality, in an unpredictable and capricious manner.
One can either embrace the pinwheeling rush of this disorientation and gain valuable insight from the refractions, or one can rigidly cling to familiar forms and resent every discrepancy inevitably strewn in one’s path.
Severely jet lagged, missing his family, at least somewhat resentful that such an undeniable payday has dragged him along on what seems a hollow journey of artificial opulence, Murray is not a traveler open to the experience until he meets a soul mate in disorientation, a young wife and recent Yale grad in philosophy played with open-faced guilelessness by Scarlett Johansson, who is stranded in the same luxury highrise hotel as Murray by her cheerfully obsessive photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), himself preoccupied with a rock band shoot.
Quietly, almost in spite of themselves, the lovely but unglamorous young woman and the jaded, worn, 50-ish movie star find their commonalities overcome the unlikeliness of their friendship, which is frought with romantic undertones and not-unwelcome sparks that they both ultimately have too much self-respect and genuine feeling for the other to allow to kindle beyond a parting kiss.
Wondrously filmed on location in a sensory-overloading Tokyo of the imagination, Lost In Translation takes the time to allow a complicated but nurturing and life-affirming bond to develop onscreen in what feels like real time, as each provides for the other the security to enjoy the jumble of cultural disorientation and end up a little farther down the path to self-discovery.
Contributing to the enveloping ambiance of the film is an exceptional use of music both within the action (nightclub and karaoke scenes in particular) and as atmosphere. Murray reveals perhaps the most penetrating snapshot of his soul yet on film in the karaoke sequence where he goes from his swaggering, bombastic, but in the end false, voice made famous all those years ago on SNL singing “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding,” to a quiet, uncertain, lonely, throaty, but very real rendition of Roxy Music’s poignant ode to inexorable emotion, “More Than This.”
This is a depth charge of a film that broadens and deepens long after the screen has faded to black. If it isn’t quite the revelation some have made it out to be, it is something very close.