Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

The Thinker by Rodin

Have you ever seen a picture and wondered how it garnered so many accolades? Usually I agree with the critics, but not on Lost in Translation (2003). Also lost is apparently my memory of when the movie was released. I figured it was a couple of years ago, but 2003? Really?

Lost in Translation was nominated for Best Picture and starred Bill Murray, who got a nomination for Best Actor. It ended up with an award to Sofia Coppola (yes, daughter of that Coppola) for best screenplay. She first came to my attention in her undistinguished and somewhat annoying role the 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married. In that movie she played Peggy Sue’s younger sister, and it was apparent that she got the part only because she was the director’s daughter. Perhaps she was wise to shift her career into producing and directing instead of acting. Whatever. In 2003 for some reason this movie of two Americans some thirty years apart in age temporarily intersecting in a very high class Tokyo hotel hit the sweet spot at the box office. It made people go gaga who really should have looked twice, because there’s not much there there.

Coppola would argue that was the point. This is an ephemeral movie of two people intersecting who should not. But this is not Once. This is not Love Actually either. It’s not quite a love story, but maybe in a way it is. What it is is a movie about a popular American actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) who is in Tokyo for a relatively short but very well paid gig wherein he pretends to relish a high end rice wine (sake). The work is relatively painless, the hotel five stars and hardly anyone speaks English. There is the redhead lounge singer (played by Catherine Lambert) in the nightclub upstairs. Bob’s main reason to hang out in the lounge is to kill time. In 2003, I guess even high end Tokyo hotels didn’t have the Internet for distractions. There is a lot of time to kill. He is alone and bored.

So is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), at least half his age, a beautiful but somewhat nerdy girl who strangely married a musician John (Giovanni Ribisi). It’s pretty clear that despite pretensions they are not well matched, since John is frequently off on gigs in Tokyo, and even finds an excuse to leave Charlotte alone in the hotel for days at a time while he does gigs elsewhere in Japan. So what Charlotte and Bob really have in common is mostly boredom, but also distance from their significant others. Bob’s wife at home is obviously tired with him. Their calls are perfunctory and business-like. In their boredom they try to catch up with their jet lag but never quite make it. They spend their nights awake and days trying to stay awake. Charlotte spends a lot of time by her window about a hundred stories above Tokyo looking absently at the view, reading magazines and smoking. Bob spends his time fighting off the occasional fan and trying to stay distracted. It’s easy to feel distracted when he first glances the beautiful Charlotte in the elevator. It takes time for them to have a relationship of sorts.

Mostly though they are quite an odd couple, but they are at least an odd couple in an odd city. Neither speaks a word of Japanese, but they do inhabit a strange and opulent Twilight Zone. The humor, such as it is in this movie, has to do with the frequent mistranslations. Together they try to have a social life, and it involves going to parties with distant friends connected to work and trying to make conversation with Japanese people who largely have no idea what they are saying, and visa versa. This leads to a few comic situations that are both predictable and strained.

Bob is basically going through a midlife crisis. He is a successful actor and is a nice guy, but doesn’t know how to give his wife the heave ho for her marital sin of being emotionally empty with him. Charlotte too is non-confrontational. Bob is easily old enough to be Charlotte’s father, which implies their relationship must be wholly platonic, and it sort of is. Bob looks at carpet samples sent Fedex by his wife. Yet he and Charlotte eventually end up in bed together, not to have sex, but simply for such company as they can bring each other while they trade meaningless stories about their meaningless lives. Their commonality is they both speak English and they both feel lost and disconnected. They also feel isolated and strangers in a very strange land. But at least they inhabit a nice prison. No matter what they do or where they go, it is all sort of vapid and meaningless. Which sort of describes the movie.

Except of course Bob, being a nice guy, gets something from his relationship with Charlotte. He can’t put his finger on it, but as he flies to go home he feels it. Their connection was designed to be short-term, but they got some tangential amusement from simply hanging out with each other for a bit. And their opulent but emotionally empty lives at least gave them the pleasure of some connection, low wattage though it is, for a little while. It’s actually kind of pathetic, but it’s better than what they have with their significant others, so neither is particularly anxious for it to end.

This is not a bad movie, no more than Waiting for Godot is a bad play. But few people get much from Waiting for Godot, the classic existentialist play. The same is true with Lost in Translation. It’s pretty obviously an existentialist movie for the 21st century. The Hollywood crowd must have been looking for something like this. Perhaps it reminded them of Los Angeles, the center of superficiality in the world. So maybe they liked it because it felt so familiar. But like most Woody Allen movies, the rest of us with more connected lives won’t so much not get it as just not appreciate it. It’s basically vapid, but at least you get the feeling that you’ve experienced Tokyo, where the city is one giant mask of electronic distraction and bad karaoke. Ultimately, the movie feels more pathetic than shallow. If this is the closest Bob and Charlotte can come to a healthy relationship, their lives will be meaningless indeed.

2.9 out of four-points. If for some reason you are an existentialist at heart, go see it. If you abhor superficiality, avoid.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

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