Lost in Translation seems to be the movie to see these days.
Yes, it’s been out for three weeks (even if it just got to Asheville) and it’s at the bottom of the Top Ten while The Rundown sits in the No. 1 spot. The Rundown, however, is on no less than 3,152 screens, while Translation is on a scant 488. And on a per screen basis, Lost took in $7,600 versus Rundown‘s $5,900. (Yes, the playing field is far from even.) Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s film is also something of a critical sacred cow, receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, some of which go beyond the mere positive and effervesce into the laudatory.
Now, I liked the film — though I’m not entirely sure why. I’d also generally recommend it. And I’d like to see it again. But I wasn’t quite as impressed as I was apparently supposed to be, and I feel oddly left out because of that — like I have the old Lewis Stone role in Grand Hotel, and am complaining, “People coming, going — nothing ever happens,” unaware of the intense drama unfolding around me.
Actually, I’m not that far afield. I do realize that quite a lot happens in Translation, and that some of it is very involving. I also don’t in the least mind that Coppola’s film has no story in the strictest sense. In essence, Bill Murray is Bob Harper, a comedian and comic actor somewhat past his prime who has come to Tokyo to shoot a series of commercials and print ads for Santori Whiskey (“Make it Santori time”). Bob has succumbed — against his artistic will — to the appeal of a quick $2 million and a break from his wife, who has become a stranger to him.
While in Tokyo, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost World), the young wife of a photographer on assignment (Giovanni Ribisi, Basic) who is too busy furthering his career to pay any attention to her. This looks like a pretty typical setup for an affair, but Coppola has other, weightier things in mind — which is all to the good, though whether it’s all quite enough to build a feature film upon is another matter.
In some ways, Coppola pulls it off — if only by virtue of the sexual tension inherent in this pair’s non-sexual encounter. That said, Translation also tends to feel artificially extended and occasionally overly contrived. Not all of the padding is without its merits, however, and one such section — where Bob and Charlotte go to a hospital to have her injured foot examined — is the funniest thing in the movie, if only because it allows Murray to slip out of his generally dour mode and start peppering the scene with Bob Hope-styled one-liners that have the feel of being ad-libbed. At first, I thought this part of Translation was a misstep, and at odds with the character he plays in the rest of the film; but on reflection, it seems to me to be the one instance where we really see the effect that Charlotte’s companionship has on him. For this one section, we get a glimpse of what Bob Harper must have been like before the harsh realities of life and the slipping fortunes of fame turned him into the more somber person he is in the rest of the movie.
My qualm is simply that this one section isn’t enough, and that Coppola has unwisely reined the comedic actor in afterwards out of a concern that the film would be too much perceived as a Bill Murray vehicle. I don’t think it would have: By that point in the proceedings, Murray has too completely etched the other side of his character for that to happen. Murray has too clearly embodied the man who’s trying to figure out why his wife has become this distant figure who only thinks in terms of home and children — and Fed-Exing him carpet samples for his new study. Moreover, the character Bob is a man who wonders why his spouse — and by extension, the world in general — stopped laughing at him. He finds himself only revered in a strange culture where he can’t help but wonder if his audience is actually getting his jokes as he intends them.
Murray and Coppola have so cemented these things that it not only wouldn’t have hurt to build on this one tenderly comic scene, but it would have strengthened the impact Charlotte has on Bob’s life as someone interested in him who knows he’s still funny — and, maybe more importantly, understands why. Coppola’s decision to play this down may boast the film’s strength of subtlety, but it also weighs down the movie where it doesn’t need to be bogged down. This hurts the film more than it might, because so much of the rest of its humor is not only less than sterling, it’s less than original.
The whole whiskey-commercial idea is straight out of Chaplin’s A King in New York, with its deposed monarch doing TV ads for Royal Crown Whiskey — and it was a lot funnier in the Chaplin movie, where it had a real payoff that’s missing here. Truth to tell, the whole May-December not-quite-romance, the fallen king (one of a country, one of comedy), the distant wife and the foreign-culture business are, overall, more than passingly similar to A King in New York. The difference is that Chaplin trusted himself to be funnier than Coppola trusts Murray to be.
Too, while some of Translation is pretty humorous, the whole culture-clash aspect of the film is a little overdone, and it’s surprising that none of the Asian-activist groups who recently managed to ban the televising of old Charlie Chan movies and raised objections about the Asian characters in Freaky Friday aren’t all over Lost in Translation as well. The film certainly paints a stereotypical picture of the Japanese, yet strangely, that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Maybe it’s because Murray and Johansson are so good in their roles — that much is certainly deserved in all the raves over this movie. And so is a good bit of the rest of the film.
See it for yourself — it’s worth it. And maybe you’ll be more in tune with it than I am.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke