Lost in Translation (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Simply put, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is an amazing motion picture. There may be some controversy over whether she truly wrote the screenplay on her own (there are sequences that argue that she at least had help from someone with a little more experience in life and marriage), but that doesn't impact the final analysis. This study into the unfathomable depths of human relationships has more honesty than 95% of the movies I have seen this year. Beautifully photographed with some amazing shots of nighttime Tokyo (and I thought Times Square was garish!), and a gorgeously composed scene of two characters reflected in a plate glass window as they hold a conversation, this movie has a look to match its acting and content.

The film details the "accidental" relationship that develops between Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Bob, an internationally recognized actor on the downside of his career, is in Tokyo filming a series of ads for a whiskey company. Charlotte, a recent Yale graduate, is accompanying her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) on a business trip. However, she spends most of the time alone. Bob and Charlotte's first few encounters are casual - on an elevator, in a bar. Gradually, however, they begin to seek out one another and a bond develops. The two eventually spend nearly every waking hour together, holding deep conversations and finding ways to avoid the eventual parting that both know must occur.

Lost in Translation is smart and perceptive about how people interact on a personal level. It portrays the disorientation of the two main characters flawlessly. They are two normal individuals who might not offer each other more than a smile under ordinary circumstances, but, put together in a place where they don't understand the language or customs and have no one else to turn to, their attachment is potent. In a strange sort of way, Lost in Translation reminded me of Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away, where two characters discover that the intensity of their relationship is predicated upon their circumstances. Take them off the island where they are marooned, and it all evaporates. The situation is similar here. The closeness shared by Bob and Charlotte is likely not something that would survive in "the real world." Will it get a chance? The screenplay cleverly leaves the decision up to the viewer.

The rich dialogue sparkles, and spans a variety of topics. The characters discuss issues both deep and shallow - from the search for the soul and the meaning of life to how couples communicate after long years of marriage. There's plenty of room for non-intrusive, low-key comedy, such as the blinds that automatically open in the morning to let in the light or the showerhead that is too low for Bob. Then there's the call girl who invades Bob's room and demands that he "lip" her stockings. (She actually means "rip.")

The relationship between Bob and Charlotte remains at the film's core, and remains platonic despite strong sexual undercurrents. A deep bond of friendship takes root, which leads to something more sublime than what we normally see between male and female characters in movies. The romantic tension starts out subtle, but builds until every frame throbs with it. There never really is a release, but the last, perfectly-pitched scene alleviates some of the pent-up pressure.

The lead performances cry "Oscar!" (Whether nominations will follow remains to be seen. Who knows with the Academy?) This is unquestionably the best performance ever given by Bill Murray. The word "perfect" is rarely used in association with the work of an actor, but it is deserved here. Murray is mainly serious, but he gets the opportunity to throw in little bits of comedy (improvised by him?) that are understated enough that they don't damage the flow. Best of all, as a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, Murray never seems to force anything. This is a far cry from The Razor's Edge. Matching Murray beat-for-beat is the luminous Scarlett Johansson, whose work here should catapult her into the elite circle of young female actresses (alongside Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few). Johansson has been wonderful in a handful of other movies (Manny & Lo, The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World), but never has her work resonated the way it does here. And, what Murray and Johansson display goes far beyond what is conventionally referred to as "screen chemisty."

If you get the sense that I applaud this movie, you are correct. Lost in Translation requires a certain amount of patience, but it is by no means a slow or lugubrious endeavor. Director Coppola has done what any young director wants to accomplish: improve upon a successful first feature. As good as The Virgin Suicides is, Lost in Translation is superior in almost every way. When Top 10 lists are released at the end of the year, this title will feature prominently on a number of them (including mine).

Lost in Translation (United States, 2003)

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Music: Kevin Shields, Brian Reitzell
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Ranked #109 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2003-09-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Brief Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1