Lost in Translation (2003)

Sophia Coppola probably has had one of the most infamous beginnings in showbiz. Her father, Francis Ford, is one of the most famous directors of our times. He was getting ready to film Godfather Part III when Winona Ryder dropped out weeks before filming. Sophia Coppola, just at the age of 18, stepped into the role of Michael Corleone’’s daughter. The level of scathing reviews Coppola’s acting received is something perhaps only Tom Green and Britney Spears can relate to. Coppola never really acted again. Instead she married Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and adapted and directed the acclaimed indie flick, The Virgin Suicides. So now Coppola is back again with Lost in Translation, and if this is the kind of rewards reaped by bad reviews early in your career, then I’’m circling the 2008 Oscar date for Britney.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a washed up actor visiting Tokyo to film some well-paying whiskey commercials. Bob’’s long marriage is fading and he feels the pains of loneliness dig its claws into his soul. Bob finds a kindred spirit in Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), a young newlywed who has followed her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Japan and is second-guessing herself and her marriage. The two strike up a friendship of resistance as strangers in a strange land. They run around the big city and share enough adventures to leave an indelible impression on each other’’s life.

Lost in Translation is, simply put, a marvelously beautiful film. The emphasis for Coppola is less on a rigidly structured story and more on a consistently lovely mood of melancholy. There are many scenes of potent visual power, nuance of absence, that the viewer is left aching like the moments after a long, cleansing cry. There are certain images (like Johansson or Murray staring out at the impersonal glittering Tokyo) and certain scenes (like the final, tearful hug between the leads) that I will never forget. It’s one thing when a film opens on the quiet image of a woman’s derriere in pink panties and just holds onto it. It’’s quite another thing to do it and not draw laughs from an audience.

Murray is outstanding and heartbreaking. Had he not finally gotten the recognition he deserved with last year’s Oscar nomination I would have raged for a recounting of hanging chads. Murray has long been one of our most gifted funnymen, but later in his career he has been turning in soulful and stirring performances playing lonely men. When Murray sings Roxy Music’s “More Than This” to Johansson during a wild night out at a karaoke bar, the words penetrate you and symbolize the leads’ evolving relationship.

Johansson (Ghost World) herself is proving to be an acting revelation. It is the understatement of her words, the presence of a mature intelligence, and the totality of her wistful staring that nail the emotion of Charlotte. Never does the character falter into a Lolita-esque vibe. She’s a lonely soul and finds a beautiful match in Murray.

Lost in Translation is an epic exploration of connection, and the quintessential film that perfectly frames those inescapable moments of life where we come into contact with people who shape our lives by their short stays. This is a reserved love story where the most tender of actions are moments like Murray carrying a sleeping Johansson to her room, tucking her in, then locking the door behind. The comedy of disconnect is delightful, like when Murray receives incomprehensible direction at a photo shoot. The score by Jean-Benoît Dunckel, front man of the French duo Air, is ambient and wraps around you like a warm blanket. The cinematography is also an amazing experience to behold, especially the many shots of the vast glittering life of Tokyo and, equally, its strange emptiness.

Everything works so well in Lost in Translation, from the bravura acting, to the stirring story, to the confident direction, that the viewer will be caught up in its lovely swirl. The film ends up becoming a humanistic love letter to what brings us together and what shapes how we are as people. Coppola’s film is bursting with such sharply insightful, quietly touching moments, that the viewer is overwhelmed at seeing such a remarkably mature and honest movie. The enjoyment of Lost in Translation lies in the understanding the audience can feel with the characters and their plight for connection and human warmth. A work of art like this sure doesn’t come around every day.

Writer/director Sophia Coppola’’s come a long way from being Winona Ryder’’s last-second replacement, and if Lost in Translation, arguably the best film of 2003, is any indication, hopefully we’ll see even more brilliance yet to come. This is not going to be a film for everyone. A common argument from detractors is that Lost in Translation is a film lost without a plot. I’ve had just as many friends call this movie “boring and pointless” as I’ve had friends call it “brilliant and touching.” The right audience to enjoy Lost in Translation would be people who have some patience and are willing to immerse themselves in the nuances of character and silence.

Nate’s Grade: A


About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on September 19, 2003, in 2003 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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