Janus Film Review Presents: Lost in Translation (2003)

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: DVD/Focus Features (2004).

Lost in Translation begins provocatively, with a daring image that pays homage to a daring painting. We later find out this is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), and the painting hangs in her hotel room. An actor, Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray), arrives for a commercial shoot in Tokyo, suffering severe jetlag, and is efficiently and courteously shown to his hotel room. Bob receives constant faxes and FedEx packages from his wife, reminding him of things he has forgotten to do and birthdays he has forgotten to attend. He is past his prime and knows it. Charlotte is unhappily married to John, played by Giovanni Ribisi (who has cornered the market in playing spineless slime-balls). He treats her as an afterthought, and so Charlotte wanders alone in the bustling, unfamiliar city, disillusioned by and detached from her husband’s life. When Bob and Charlotte both wake up one morning, they are unaware that their lives are about to become inextricably linked. As these characters are introduced to us, an inescapable sense of loneliness pervades.

Following an hilarious sight gag involving Bill Murray taking a shower, the film begins to draw their lives together. Bob films his commercial and attends photo sessions, subjected to badly translated requests to exude more intensity or be more mysterious – to channel Ol’ Blue Eyes or Roger Moore. It is only a matter of time before a mutual bout of insomnia results in Bob and Charlotte finally meeting in the hotel bar. Here begins a chaste love affair, where both they spend time together, striking a balance between Bob’s mid-life crisis and Charlotte’s search for a meaningful life.

Murray can play this kind of character in his sleep, that of deadpan weariness. One does get the impression it is not too dissimilar from his own persona. It helps that director Sofia Coppola’s Academy Award Winning Screenplay was written specifically for Murray – really, all he had to do was show up and be Bill Murray. That may be disingenuous, but ultimately, it is a remarkably restrained performance, showing a rare sweetness and charm that is not often required of other characters in his catalogue. Johansson immaculately portrays a character trying to find her way in the world – she has been a writer, a photographer, a philosophy student. A particularly revealing exchange results in perhaps the most profound line of the film where Bob reassures her that wherever life leads her, she will “figure it out without worrying about it.” Throughout, Johansson effortlessly holds the screen, matching Murray beat for beat in what is ultimately a two-hander between the leads.

It seems fitting that most of Lost in Translation takes place in or around the hotel. The film shows how hotels can be unfamiliar places where one can feel lonely in a crowd. As Bob is driven through Tokyo to his hotel, he sees a Japanese advertising billboard with his face on it. Channel surfing in his hotel room, he happens upon an old TV programme of his dubbed into Japanese. Key scenes show Bob talking to his wife on the phone. These moments accurately depict how two people can seem so out of step with each other when one is on the other side of the world. Charlotte and her husband, on the other hand, are out of step with each other whilst being in the same room.

Lost in Translation is bittersweet. It seamlessly blends the meticulously scripted and the playfully improvised, combining a mature and poignant melancholy with sight gags, funny lines and winning performances. One almost intuitively knows the outcome of their fleeting relationship, but the satisfaction comes from watching how they provide each other with small glimpses of happiness. When I first watched it on release, I didn’t get it. Now I do.

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