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Sofia Coppola’s Overly Subtle “Lost in Translation”

Sofia Coppola's Overly Subtle "Lost in Translation"

Sofia Coppola’s Overly Subtle “Lost in Translation”

by Peter Brunette

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an aging American actor culture-shocked in Tokyo, in Sofia Coppola’s sophomore film “Lost in Translation.” Photo courtesy Focus Features.

Sofia Coppola’s new film, “Lost in Translation,” is so subtle it’s almost catatonic. A delicate, purposely tentative film about cultural and personal displacement, and the way they intersect, it never fully coalesces into something substantial, never really fulfills the promise it holds out. It’s a road movie in disguise — how vulnerable we are to change when we’re away from home–but, fatally, it lacks any real snap. Still, its script is remarkably patient, and Coppola is to be commended for resisting the urge to give in to the temptation of the cheap thrill. But maybe it would have been better if she had, at least occasionally. The movie is done in by its excessively good taste.

We’re in Tokyo and the first person we see is Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a “movie star” who has come to Japan to film a liquor commercial for a lot of money. Staying at his hotel is the much younger Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a neglected wife and recent graduate of Yale, where she majored in philosophy, no less. They see each other in an elevator, they nod to each other in the hotel bar, they later speak briefly at the bar, they run into each other outside the hotel during a fire alarm, and they eventually start going out on the town and having lots of fun together. Bob, whose marriage is getting stale, is in the throes of a mid-life crisis; Charlotte, whose marriage doesn’t seem to have started (though she’s already been married for two years), is trying to figure out what she should do with her life. Will they or won’t they? You won’t find out from this plot summary.

It goes without saying that “Lost in Translation” is infinitely superior to any imaginable Hollywood treatment of this situation, which would continue throwing lots of complications at us. Here, instead, each time they meet they seem only incrementally closer, which is, obviously, a lot more similar to the way it would happen in real life. Still, this is a movie, and some viewers will lose patience counting the increments.

Far and away the best thing about “Lost in Translation” is Bill Murray, whose comic attempts to engage with Japanese culture are often hilarious, owing to that incredible timing and subtle gestural language he knows how to mesh so smoothly. (I’d love to know how many of his lines were written, and how many were ad-libbed.) Still, since all the jokes are at the expense of the Japanese — “these people are, really, just SO weird!!” — the humor grates after awhile, especially the ancient jokes about the Japanese tendency to reverse “r” and “l” when speaking English. (Needless to say, not one of the Americans ever attempts a single word of Japanese.)

Much is made of the impenetrability of the foreign culture, and no attempt is ever made to see things from the other side. (In this, it resembles the recent insulting “exploration” of the French in “Le Divorce,” but is leagues better than that misbegotten movie.) Instead, the characters take cab rides through the brightly-lighted Ginza area of Tokyo, where a rainbow of neon plays on their faces, go to nightclubs and hang out with strange people, stare respectfully at Buddhist ceremonies, watch a flower-arranging class, go golfing at the foot of Mt. Fuji, and never, ever get even one millimeter below the surface of this apparently impenetrable Other and these Kodak moments. (Oh, and there are innumerable panoramic shots of the Tokyo cityscape as seen from their hotel, but these are static and cinematically lazy.) In the hands of a more experienced director, this confrontation with a very foreign culture could have been a chance for some deep thinking about American naivete and innocence, but Coppola seems to be as much at sea in this foreign land as her characters.

Even worse, she loads the dice. She knows who her audience is, and knows that this audience will find a lot to identify with in Charlotte’s lost, dissatisfied philosophy major. The bad people in the film, whom her audience will be predisposed to dislike, are her husband John (a shamefully wasted Giovanni Ribisi), an ambitious photographer who is neglectful of his gorgeous, sensitive wife in the most facile, clichéd ways, and, especially, a starlet named Kelly (Anna Faris) who is all southern California airhead bimbo and nothing else. It is a well-known fact that all us indie film folk prefer philosophy majors (especially from Yale) to airhead bimbos.

There is one especially nice moment in the film, where Bob and Charlotte have a serious conversation for literally one minute, and Bob talks about the wonder of being a parent. This apparently is the wisdom that Charlotte has been seeking, and she seems content, but it’s far from enough for the rest of us.

Aside from getting the chance to see Bill Murray do anything (he has an amazing five minutes in Jim Jarmusch’s new film “Coffee & Cigarettes”), the best thing (and sometimes the worst thing) about this film is the deliberateness of its careful observation of its central characters. But for all the effect it has on them, Japan remains little more than one gigantic throwaway line, and the story, and their relationship, could really have happened anywhere. A real chance to say something about America and its relation to different cultures has, alas, been lost in translation.

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