Lost in Translation (2003) *** 1/4
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Photography, Lance Acord. Editing, Sarah Flack. Production design, Anne Ross, K.K. Barrett. Brian Reitzell, Kevin Sields. Producers Ross Katz, Coppola. Executive producer, Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Catherine Lambert, Akiko Takeshita, et al. A Focus Features release. 105 minutes. R (rather unjustified).
Filmed entirely in Japan with American actors in the main roles -which amount to two-- the cleverly titled "Lost in Translation" does three jobs.
It illustrates Rudyard Kipling's lines " East in East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." It contradicts the above by showing the mostly technological and business rapport between East and West. And, most importantly -and warmly-- it is a tale of alienations as well as connections in its protagonists.
That's a big order --a challenge that writer-director Sofia Coppola handles with bemusement, feeling and originality.
The opening credits are on a background of the "derriere" of a sleeping, callipygous woman, who will soon be identified as Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). She will soon meet Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and a twosome will be formed --but not a couple.
Murray, in his best role in years, is a movie actor in decline. This is not spelled out. Almost nothing in this story is underlined -and that's a major virtue of this particular film. We draw our own conclusions. One of them is that Harris's career may be waning but the man is not quite a has-been. Otherwise, why would he be paid two million dollars to do, in Japan, a commercial for Santory whiskey?
Arriving in Tokyo Bob Harris gets a major welcome as well as major accommodations in a luxurious, hi-tech hotel. Major jet-lag makes sleep hard for him. The dizzying electronics of his room don't help either. He wanders around the fancy but impersonal establishment where he casually meets casually Charlotte. She too is at loose ends. A Yale college graduate (in philosophy) in her early 20s, she has has been married for two years to John (Giovanni Ribisi in small role), a sought-after celebrity photographer. He has endless professional ambitions which make him neglect his young spouse. To put it more kindly, he puts his camera ahead of Charlotte. So, the sensitive girl lives in a malaise which may well have started in the U.S.A. To make matters harder, here she is a stranger in a strange land, has no friendly contacts, has nothing to do as while her man is busy with shoots, local or distant.
The separate bewilderments of lost-souls Charlotte and Bob Harris are sensitively, delicately staged. That's just an opener. In entirely normal, realistic, unforced fashion, those two share loneliness and, what's more important, alienation.
Early on we follow Bob's shoot of the commercial whose over-energetic director can communicate with Bob only via an interpreter. It is hilarious. The filmmaker delivers a torrent of instructions to Bob. The interpreter summarizes them in single sentences like "turn your head." Shades of a Marx Brothers gag where a long speech is being typed with just a four clicks -and then a short signature is typed with a long stream of clicks. Also very funny is the surprise visit to Bob's room by a call-girl graciously hired by Bob's hosts.
The two Americans close ranks, keep each other company, go places and night-spots together. They do some karaoke (horrid), they look around Tokyo, they talk, etc. But they do not have the expected-in-movies affair. Which is sensible given Murray's age of 52 and Ms. Johansson's youth (she is 18 on reality).
All this is treated with quietness, growing friendship, some humor and, by American standards, a kind of gentility that feels as though some Japanese politeness has rubbed off on the Yanks. Bob's relationship with his wife is not exactly ideal, but this too is not spelled out. It is hinted at in indirect ways, such as fax messages, phone calls home, or a parcel from the States sent by Mrs. Harris and containing carpet samples for Bob's study.
There's a pleasant simplicity in this new relationship. But there is hardly any of that vaunted Japanese simplicity in landscapes and cityscapes, save for a few quiet moments that Charlotte spends in Kyoto. What surrounds the visitors in Tokyo's famous Ginza district (where the hotels, stores and "action" are) is Westernization with a vengeance, motley buildings, warrens of galleries, animated lights, electronics gone mad, a nightlife as dumb as in the U.S.A., exponentially overwhelming garishness and both asphyxiating and sterile modernism - one that makes me yearn for a year in Provence.
A strange, novel mini-paradox of this work is that the protagonists, within the populous, uber-contemporary megalopolis setting are quite close to a company of a man and a woman stranded on a desert island. I don't think that any other film has gone in that direction.
Ms. Coppola does not - as some have said - practice racism or anti-orientalism (or Asianism) in her movie. What she seems to be after is the making of a film in a certain European manner, one of relationships marked by conversations, behavior, reactions --- and sometimes bits of ludicrousness. It reminds one of Fellini, whose La Dolce Vita is, at some point, playing on the television set in Bob's room. And the approach and mood are even closer to Antonioni than to Fellini. Not to mention a slim but unavoidable echo of David Lean's 1945 classic romance "Brief Encounter."