161 – Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story of two disparate Americans temporarily in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a has-been actor who’s relegated to pitching alcohol in a TV ad; Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson) is the somewhat-neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who’s in town to do a shoot.

Charlotte and Bob are staying at the same hotel, and both are living through the same experience of getting through the day as fish out of water. Living the life of a tourist-American isn’t always fun and games, you know. Bob just wants to finish his commercial shoot and then get home, even though the marriage with his stateside wife is devoid of passion, and Scarlett isn’t quite sure what she wants.

It’s not improbable that these two should wind up spending some time together, especially since in Tokyo they stick out like the cliched sore thumbs (especially Murray, who’s much taller than any of the Japanese around him at all times). They decide to hang out together, to make the most of the time they have to spend in a foreign land.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about this movie is that it’s too slow, but I consider that to be its most engaging characteristic. This is not an action movie. This isn’t a smart-alecky comedy with rapid-fire hilarity. In essence, it’s a two-character study.

A good film for comparison is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). In that movie, Jesse (an American) and Celine (a Frenchwoman) meet on a train traveling from Budapest to Vienna, and we witness their relationship gradually ascend from that of slight acquaintences to full-blown amour. Bob and Charlotte’s relationship progresses much the same way, but it’s even more subtle (believe it or not). Charlotte, the lonely photographer’s wife, and Bob, the unwilling participant in a disaffected marriage, find in each other a true kindred spirit.

This isn’t something easily expressed on screen, and even on the printed page it’s difficult to pull off. But the masterful Oscar-winning script by Sofia Coppola (who also directed) is so superb in its attention to detail, along with the perfectly nuanced performances of Johansson and Murray (nominated for an Oscar) are the ideal combination. The audience is utterly convinced that these two characters are meant for each other, at least on some level.

Not one note of this movie rang falsely for me, but it is not for everyone. Don’t let the mulitple Oscar nominations sway you – if you do not like quiet, subtle movies, you probably won’t like Lost in Translation. For the rest of you, it’s a true gem.

Lost in Translation: ****

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