Review: Lost In Translation (2003)

Director: Sofia Coppola


Lost In Translation has an unfortunate love-hate relationship with its setting, Tokyo. It all looks so bright and bustling and technological, yet it causes little else but grief to two strangers who aren’t necessarily there willingly. When the director thinks one thing and the characters think another, there’s gonna be problems.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star going through that apparent right of passage for so many famous actors: advertising for the Japanese market (for examples, see this and this). This is a character Murray fits perfectly; he’s had the highs and lows of a full career, and thus knows the frustrations and angsts of Bob. Bob’s in Tokyo for a photo shoot and promos for Santori whiskey; he appreciates the product but the language barrier, his own messy lot and the overall culture clash leaves him exhausted and bitter. Murray’s lived-in features and droll wit are put to full use here, but Murray also hints at the lonliness birthing the frustration. Indeed, he keeps the rest of Sofia Coppola’s film grounded when it threatens to float away on an air of self-importance. Bob has a kindred spirit in Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), another guest at the same hotel as Bob and the young wife of a professional photographer (Giovanni Ribisi); she finds herself bored in her hotel room whilst he shoots on a job in Tokyo. Maybe it’s the construction of the character (she’s a recent philosophy graduate trying to decide on a career), or maybe it’s Johannson’s obvious beauty clouding whatever acting talent she possesses, but there’s little impetus to empathize with Charlotte. When she and Bob meet, they find a bond in their isolation. Charlotte clearly enjoys the wisdom and humour of the older man, whilst Bob… well, she’s sexy. The lack of empathy for one character impacts on our feelings towards this relationship, and it isn’t helped by the age difference. In writing these characters, Coppola seems obsessed by their lonliness, but not by much else, thus leaving Murray and Johannson to do the rest. After The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s gift for interesting female characters has abandoned her.

Despite this, Lost In Translation does offer up some treats. Murray is the main draw, as he is constantly and consistently perplexed by Japanese living. Whether grappling with an exercise machine or forcing a grin on a camp-as-Christmas talk show, Murray supplies laughs and heart. Tokyo, for all the confusion it causes, is an exciting metropolis and Coppola makes sure to show it off. Garish neon glows brightly as Bob and Charlotte explore and dodge traffic. There’s enough in LIT to keep you interested, but it amuses when it should engage. A fun little Tokyo story, then, but Tokyo Story it ain’t.