"Lost In Translation"
Director: Sofia Coppola
Patricia Ducey

Lost in Translation is a film “about nothing” that holds our attention and wins our hearts nonetheless, as writer/Director Sofia Coppola eloquently turns back the veil to allow a glimpse at the innermost recesses of the human heart. Despite a few missteps (artsy shots, like the pink panty clad butt opening, a grating Giovanni Ribisi), it’s a lovely jazz riff on exile and the indispensable need for a place called home.

Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson illuminate Coppola’s screenplay with humor and emotional depth. Movie star Bob Harris (Murray), is lost in Tokyo in a fog of jet lag and middle-aged angst. There he meets Charlotte (Johansson) another American, who is enveloped in her own anomie. He is filming a whiskey commercial for $2 million when he should be doing a play; she is a newly minted philosophy grad not quite sure of who she is or what to do next, and whom, other than her shallow Hal husband, she might do it with.

They meet in the hotel’s fortress/bar that’s filled with other dislocated international travelers. It’s a haven for expatriates, like Sam’s in Casablanca, faux Western in every way, even down to the cheesy lounge singer. Both Charlotte and Bob watch the light and movement just beyond the tall windows, yearning to be part of it, but always at a safe distance.

Their exile in Tokyo is doubled in the dislocation each of them feels in their emotional life; they yearn also to be without fear, part of someone, seen and understood. At the beginning of the film, Charlotte visits a Buddhist shrine and is devastated when she doesn’t feel anything. Only later, when she watches a traditional and elaborate wedding party, the groom offering his strong hand to his beloved, does she get it. It’s the connection between them, not the costume and panoply, that is sacred. Bob’s wife is back home; we know her only as a disembodied voice on the cell phone. Again and again, he dutifully recites his husband lines to her, as their marital truce demands, in a monotone as numbed as his feelings -- a standout monologue and a great performance.

The two eventually, inevitably return to their lives, to their assigned spaces. But Bob cannot brush this aside as a meaningless encounter. He interrupts the cab ride to the airport to run after Charlotte. He whispers something to her that we cannot hear; their embrace and the look of relief and joy on her face is all we need to know. Murray the serious actor now owns the territory of the wounded comic soul and surpasses his work even in Rushmore, my previous favorite. Luminous and intelligent, Johansson holds her own as his perfect foil.

Cinematographer Lance Acord’s nighttime Tokyo shimmers from afar, tantalizingly out of reach, and the Tokyo Pop and American oldies help define the oft-clashing cultures. The aesthetic choices of the film are more than happy accidents; this is the work of a skilled filmmaker. With Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola earns her place at the table alongside the best of them.

-- Patricia Ducey

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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