Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 3, 2003
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
In a way, Bill Murray is perfect to fill the role of Bob Harris in “Lost in Translation.” Bob is a Hollywood star who has headlined a series of blockbusters with a lot more shine than substance, and a look at Murray’s body of work prior to this movie yields such iconic roles as Carl, the assistant groundskeeper in “Caddyshack,” and the barely accredited Dr. Peter Venkman in “Ghostbusters.” In “Lost in Translation,” Murray takes his role much more deeply in a story that wanders whimsically through the night-time pastures of romantic possibility by way of nightclubs, a fire drill and an interrupted limousine ride. This is a fine film that focuses on the essence of possibility rather than taking the viewer on a forced march through a plot line, and that is a welcome break from the cinematic norm.
Bob is in Tokyo for a whiskey commercial that will bring him a simple $2 million. He’s also brought with him the pieces of an aimless marriage. A FedEx package brings him carpet samples rather than something more heartfelt, and his children fax him a note saying that they miss him. He seems unattached to it all, making him a perfect foil for Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). She is more than 30 years younger but is in a drift pattern of her own, married to a photographer who spends the whole time in Tokyo shooting photos of rock stars while she looks for her true self.
Bob and Charlotte have never met before. However, one of the most captivating scenes has Bob in a kimono and Charlotte in just her underwear, standing alone in their separate suites, looking down at the metropolis below through wide windows. This isolation captures what it means to be an alien in a foreign place and to be far from oneself as well. By using high-speed film instead of digital video, the scene gets more of an exotic glow. The city below is something that is just out of reach, but so, for both of them, is a sense of passion in life, a sense of mission.
The film has its hilarious moments: the Japanese director can’t stand how Bob is shooting the commercial, although the translator takes lengthy tirades and turns them into short maxims like “Look at the camera like a friend.” However, it is Murray’s ability to let Bob’s emotional scars show through, rather than using his personality to force that damage on the viewer, that makes this such an outstanding performance for him.
Scarlett Johansson was just 18 when this film came out and already had strong performances in “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Charlotte is not girly in any sense of the word. However, she is just what Bob needs, if only in the way that they need each other, and if only for the space of a few days. The two meet in the lounge of a hotel, and the odd symmetry of their conversation leads them to deeper talks as well as a trip to an adult club, an arcade and then to karaoke. (For those who have never heard “More Than This,” the classic by Roxy Music, Murray’s version might be even better.)
Even when Bob hooks up with a jazz performer, Charlotte is somewhat upset, but not because she is jealous. The interlude never seems like a betrayal, because it is just another step in Bob’s journey in deciding who he really is. She realizes that her connection with Bob is deeper, and yet more ethereal at the same time. While Charlotte appears to want Bob to join her in that jazz band she proposes, the audience already knows that their relationship will always remain a wish, rather than going through the distortions that occur when romance becomes reality. The fact that their last conversation takes place in whispers that the audience cannot hear brings the movie to a perfect conclusion. Their connection is as deep, as incomprehensible and as fleeting as whispers in the middle of a crowded street.
The power of “Lost in Translation” comes from what remains unsaid, from what the viewer must see and understand. Those who have dismissed Murray’s other attempts at serious roles could do so no longer, watching him walk away from Charlotte on the way back to his limousine and back to his life. The May-November romance is almost always a cliché, but here it is what does not happen that makes it powerful. Instead of falling automatically into sex or demanding resolution, as so many films do, this film stays silent and intimate. It is this difference that makes Coppola’s film so golden to watch.