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I know, there are about three million writers out there that will tell you how good LOST IN TRANSLATION actually is. But they're not lying. This movie is one of those that comes along out of the blue and makes you realize just how many stupid preconceptions we have about what movies are supposed to be like, then shows you just how far above that stigma this movie is without ever getting snooty about it. Or something like that.
There's not some wacky premise to get you hooked here. I can just imagine the pitch meeting for LOST IN TRANSLATION (if it were a big studio film and not the work of the daughter of the guy who did THE GODFATHER, but work with me here because I'm trying to be funny) would go something like this:
Struggling Hollywood Writer: So I have this idea for a new movie.
Fat Studio Executive: Okay, I'm all ears.
Struggling Hollywood Writer: It's sort of a romantic movie.
Fat Studio Executive: Okay, who are we looking at for the male lead? Brad Pitt? Tobey Maguire?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: No, I'm thinking of an older man and a younger woman.
Fat Studio Executive: Ah, the May-December thing? So like Clooney? Harrison Ford? Older? Redford? Beatty?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: No, I as thinking Bill Murray.
Fat Studio Executive: The guy from STRIPES? The funny guy from GHOSTBUSTERS? Are we going screwball comedy here?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: No, no, he's a great actor. Check out RUSHMORE.
Fat Studio Executive: Okay, whatever. So for the young girl, we got all those Charlie's Angels chicks to work with, like Barrymore and Diaz and...
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Well, there's this great young actress I think would be perfect. Her name is Scarlett Johanssen.
Fat Studio Executive: What would I know her from?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Ghost World...
Fat Studio Executive: Was that one of those hip new horror movies?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Uhh, no. It was an indie from a couple years ago based on a comic book...
Fat Studio Executive: Oh, a superhero movie! Those are big now!
Struggling Hollywood Writer: No, no, it...nevermind. Trust me, she's great.
Fat Studio Executive: Okay, whatever. So it's a romance. What's the gimmick?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Well, they're in Japan. They're married to other people, but they're lonely...
Fat Studio Executive: Ooh, infidelity! I like it! It's taboo.
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Uhm, whatever. They meet in a bar late at night because they can't sleep. They get to talking and confide in each other.
Fat Studio Executive: Okay, when do the sparks fly?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: What do you mean? It's pretty much right away.
Fat Studio Executive: So they go back to a hotel room and get it on by, oh, say, the third reel?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: No, actually, they don't. It's purely platonic.
Fat Studio Executive: What? Are you crazy? Well, at least tell me there's some crazy adventure going on in the background.
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Well, actually, no. It's just life as usual in Tokyo. They go to a club or two, hang out in a karaoke bar, eat sushi...
Fat Studio Executive: What, are you trying to bore the audience to tears? Which one's secretly the CIA agent? Where's the cancer angle? C'mon, I need something here!
Struggling Hollywood Writer: Well, no. It's a character study. I mean, he's an actor, if that helps.
Fat Studio Executive: Whatever. It's in Tokyo, can we at least have Godzilla come through and try to wreck everything?
Struggling Hollywood Writer: No.
Fat Studio Executive: Then I'll pass. Go take it to one of those stupid little Colorado festival organizers.
...And you see, that's one of the things that makes this movie what it is. If this were any other movie, it would have been a whole lot different. As it is, it's just what my imaginary pitchman was describing: Just some cameras following two people around Tokyo, watching them find comfort in each others' company because there's nobody else to spend time with. The relationship between them doesn't just develop because they're lonely, though. They're practically soulmates, compatible in almost every way, save for a few minor indiscretions such as the fact that they're both married and are a good thirty years apart in age. They develop this relationship in the most pure fashion, without ever having to reach that point of consummation.
Of course, the story as it is could not be pulled off the way it does without the aid of the two perfect actors in the lead roles. Bill Murray is absolutely amazing. If you liked him in RUSHMORE, if he wowed you in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, he'll blow you away here. Murray plays Bob Harris, a former box office star who's considered a footnote (or worse, a punchline) in this day and age. He's in Japan to shoot some commercials for a whiskey, and probably winds up consuming about as much as his ads will eventually sell. Johannsen plays Charlotte, the wife of a rock photographer who's so wrapped up in his work that he can't pay a lick of attention to his spouse. Since everyone else surrounding them isn't exactly the most well-versed in the English language, it's no wonder that the two come together. Both Murray and Johannsen play their roles with authenticity and passion. They're believeable as they are likeable.
It's obvious that both feel unfulfilled in their respective marriages. Bob has been in his, however, as long as Charlotte's been on Earth. He sticks out as sort of a precursor to what she can expect in the future, but he constantly reminds her that it's worth it. But it's obvious that he's not above sowing his wild oats, as he does with a performer from the hotel bar. He's just not about to go off and lay pipe with Charlotte, because he realizes what he has there is about far more than a risque little fling.
The film also wouldn't be quite the same without the setting. Tokyo is amazing. It's this busy world full of fast-moving people and bright lights. Things that I've dreamt about are commonplace here. Once Bob and Charlotte move from the dismal hotel to the outside world, everything just lights up. I don't want to sit here and just describe individual scenes, so just go see it for yourself. But just so you know, if you have any sort of heart at all in that chest of yours, the karaoke scene will blow you away.
Sofia Coppola, who also directed THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, must have decided that she wasn't going to let her hubby Spike Jonze take all the credit for great films in their marriage. While her first film wasn't terrible, it was one I was rather disappointed in. I thought Kirsten Dunst's performance to be overrated, and for the most part, just felt the film was dull. But Sofia's come a long way, baby, and in the process has churned out a nearly flawless piece of cinema.
The film opens with a striking first shot, and ends with an unknown passage being whispered into Charlotte's ear. We're don't hear what Bob says to her, but that's okay. I think it's best if we just use our imaginations here, and let the film end with the conclusion of our choice. I personally prefer to think that he was whispering a warning to her to watch out for Godzilla.
Now that would make an excellent sequel.
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