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Lost in Translation

#560 - Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola, 2003

Two Americans - one an aging actor, the other a young newlywed - strike up an unlikely friendship while both of them are staying at the same hotel in Tokyo.

This is my first time revisiting Lost in Translation in ages. I liked it well enough the first time that I saw it, but I didn't exactly love it or anything. The passage of several years and the many changes to my cinematic tastes naturally meant that my viewpoint would be different, but would it be different enough to improve my opinion of the film? That'd make sense given how much Lost in Translation tends to be based in a less-is-more approach as its admittedly rudimentary narrative tries to provide an experience more so than a story. Renowned sad-clown star Bill Murray thus makes for the ideal lead as a character that bears a lot of similarity to his real-life persona, here playing a famous film actor who is in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial. When he's not working on the commercial or appearing on talk shows, he's engaging in singularly empty activities such as watching subtitle-free Japanese TV or swimming in the hotel's luxurious pool. To counter screen veteran Murray, relative newcomer Scarlett Johansson co-stars as the young wife of a professional photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who's in Tokyo for work reasons. While he's off working (which is almost all the time), Johansson finds herself bored; though she makes an effort to play tourist and check out a lot of the sights, more often than not she stays cooped up in the hotel listening to self-help audiobooks or staring out the window. Eventually, the two leads' paths cross and they become acquaintances who opt to kill their free time together out of a sort of mutual disconnection to the people and places around them.

One could definitely question the intentions behind the many comedic scenes in which Murray is either amused or bemused by the culture shock and the language barrier (such as one scene where he has a linguistically-based conflict with an escort that's arrived at his hotel room door), though they do feed into the film's main themes of emotional emptiness that go beyond any superficial fun that's being poked at Japanese stereotypes (which I'm not entirely sure excuses it). The film will challenge and reward an audience's patience as it takes time unfolding with many scenes of what could be considered nothing happening; despite its emphasis on restraint, it doesn't become truly boring. The down-to-earth visual style captures Tokyo with clarity and little else; the soundtrack is an interesting one that invokes some unusual choices in its use of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Given how shoegaze is a musical genre in which relatively simple songs are lent greater weight by excessive distortion, the choices on offer definitely do a good job of reflecting the film's emphasis of everything except its simple plot. The pairing of Murray and Johansson is an unlikely one, but their dynamic is decent enough to carry the film during the periods where they are together. Otherwise, it really is dependent on scenes of one or both Americans spending their time being bothered by not just their fish-out-of-water situations but also by their own gnawing ennui. Despite the many superficial differences there are between the two characters, both actors are good at communicating a lot through body language more so than words, though they pretty much have to do that considering how often they end up on their own.

It's a shame that Lost in Translation works a little too well at making an audience relate to the same listlessness that its protagonists feel by being a somewhat slow and uneventful film that feels like passing time in a hotel room. That's not an automatic reason to condemn the film, but it's enough of a strike against it that I still feel slightly bored even as I've grown older and learned to appreciate cinematic restraint. The film definitely has enough good moments strewn throughout its running time that I'm willing to think of it as a decent film, but decent is all it really feels like. There's a certain indescribable quality to it that means that I would not be averse to giving it a third chance at some point down the line, but as for right now I'm willing to think of it as an uncomplicated indie film featuring an understated yet strong performance by Murray (how constant Oscar-chaser Sean Penn took home a Best Actor award for his scenery-chewing work in Mystic River over Murray's work here is beyond me) and a good break-out role for Johansson. Definitely worth at least one viewing no matter what.