A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Lost in Translation currently has a 95 percent favorable rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer and a 7.8 score on the IMDb rating system. It won Sofia Coppola an Oscar for best original screenplay and a nomination for best director, along with nominations for best picture and for Bill Murray as best actor. But I have to admit that it left me cold when I first saw it, and my opinion of it has warmed only somewhat since then. I grant its originality of concept and its effective use of Murray and co-star Scarlett Johansson, who was only 18 when the film was made, a major step in her career as a film actress. Murray and Johansson have a fine chemistry together that stops short of inducing the queasiness that might result from their age difference. Coppola effectively portrays the melancholy of these Americans lost in a lively, vibrant culture they can only glimpse superficially. But I can also sympathize with the Japanese critics who found its depiction of the people of Japan to be little short of caricature. I felt this most strongly in the scene, early in the film, in which someone sends a prostitute to the hotel room of Murray's character, and she demands that he "lip" her stockings. Much supposed hilarity ensues from the stereotype of the Japanese confusion of "l" and "r," which was funny when the Monty Python troupe performed "Erizabeth L," with such characters as "Sil Wartel Lareigh," but I think it falls flat here. Otherwise, Coppola evokes the experience most of us have felt in a country where we don't speak the language. Murray plays a film star, Bob Harris, in Tokyo to shoot a Suntory whiskey commercial with a Japanese director who gives complicated instructions that are reduced by a translator to little more than "turn and look at the camera." A New York Times article after the film opened revealed what the director is actually saying, but Coppola chose not to provide subtitles, leaving the non-Japanese-speaking audience as much in the dark as Bob Harris -- and in fact Bill Murray himself -- was. Coppola also subtly suggests what her characters might be feeling, without spelling it out for us, as when Charlotte (Johansson), who has been left on her own in Japan while her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) travels about, visits a Buddhist temple in Kyoto where a wedding is taking place. But Coppola's lapses in control of the film's tone, as in the scene with the prostitute, are sometimes needlessly jarring.

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