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Lost in Translation
2003 - R - 103 Mins.
Director: Sofia Coppola
Producer: Sofia Coppola and Ross Katz
Written By: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Akiko Takeshita and Giovanni Ribisi
Review by: Bill King
I really wanted to like this movie. After all the good things being said about it, after learning of Bill Murray's Oscar-caliber performance, I wanted to walk out knowing that "Lost in Translation" was a masterpiece. Alas, it was not meant to be. A film like this presents an enormous challenge for the dissenting viewer, because he must convince readers that the negative parts of the film, if any, are enough to reduce a film from a revered standing down to mediocrity.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a lonely actor who is in Tokyo to pose for whiskey ads. He has a wife and children, but they didn't come along. They stayed home, and through Bob's phone conversations with his wife, we can see the strain his gig is having on their marriage. Bob does his ads without much enthusiasm, and hangs out in the hotel bar afterwards, perhaps regretting that the trip to Japan is having a detrimental impact on him. There is also Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), another lonely American in Tokyo. Her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) is a photographer who is out nearly everyday, while she sits bored in her room. In an elevator, her eyes meet Bob's, and that is the start of a budding friendship.

Surrounded by a culture unfamiliar to them, Bob and Charlotte find each other's company a refreshing relief. Finally, they have someone to connect to, someone to take their minds off the fact that they have trouble relating to everyone around them. They spend many days and nights together, discussing their innermost thoughts, opening up in ways they could never do before. Occasionally, others join them. Charlotte has some friends, and she invites Bob along for a night of karaoke. Most of the time, however, the movie watches these two lonely people become closer friends, and doing so in the middle of a foreign land adds more strength and substance to the material.

The movie was directed by Sofia Coppola, who made her debut with the beautiful 1999 film "The Virgin Suicides." I was hoping that some of the poetic mastery she brought to that movie would show itself here, but it doesn't. The movie's theme is to bring together two people who find comfort with each other, because they feel lost in the Japanese way of life. Instead of simply focusing on Bob and Charlotte, however, Coppola allows herself to insert many scenes that emphasize the difference between American and Japanese culture.

As the film opens, Bob stands in an elevator, towering over the shorter Japanese men around him. Later, he sits on a bed that looks too short for him. Even later, he takes a shower and has to kneel down for the water to spray on him. He wears slippers that are too small for his feet. When he and Charlotte visit a restaurant, the pictures of six different menu items look the same. While shaving, Bob uses an undersized razor. In a show-stopping scene, Bob appears on a talk show with an overly enthusiastic host that garnered loads of laughter from the audience I sat with, but got only a frown from me.

Objections over the film's depiction of the Japanese have come up on the internet. Some label the film as stereotypical, while others point out that there are actual shows in Tokyo with goofy hosts and colorful graphics. Note carefully that I have no problem with the way the Japanese are depicted here. My problem with the movie is that Coppola tries too many times to emphasize the differences between the two cultures. The scenes I mentioned in the above paragraph, and many others I haven't mentioned, are scattered throughout the film, as if Coppola felt we needed another reminder of how the Japanese are different from the Americans.

Once Coppola established her theme, it wasn't necessary for her to go back and remind us. She could just have allowed her two characters to talk. Every time I would start to get involved in the moment, another scene came along to show me another way we are different from the Japanese. That's too bad, because I really enjoy a movie whose strength lies almost entirely on its dialogue. A movie similar to "Lost in Translation" that brought together two strangers in a foreign land is "Before Sunrise" (1995), starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. That was a wonderful movie. Hawke and Delpy spend the entire movie in conversation, and writer/director Richard Linklater wrote dialogue that was witty, romantic and truthful.

"Lost in Translation" features a number of beautiful shots of nighttime Tokyo, with its neon lights and large billboards. Underneath these lights are Bob and Charlotte, sharing time because they have lots of it. I appreciate Coppola's efforts to bring us a film about loneliness and friendship, but disrupting the flow when not called for is an unfortunate mistake.
Movie Guru Rating
Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable.
  2.5 out of 5 stars

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