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Lost in Translation

Lost In Translation
cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Anna Faris

director: Sofia Coppola

97 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Roger Keen
Despite being insubstantial in content, Sofia Coppola's second film has become a popular success, due in no small part to a magical performance from its star, Bill Murray. He plays veteran American actor Bob Harris, who has been paid $two million dollars to endorse a Japanese whiskey and shoot some commercials in Tokyo. We find him there, on his own and clearly suffering from displacement and isolation. He hangs out in his hotel bar, drinking and killing time, and when he goes to bed he can't sleep. His wife communicates by fax, asking for decisions about the re-decoration of their home, and because of the time difference one of these greets the insomniac Harris at 4.20 am, much to his consternation. When he shoots the first whiskey commercial, the Japanese director barks streams of complex instructions at him, which are scantily translated by an assistant, and the consequent working atmosphere is far from sanguine.
   Then Harris has a brush with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in the hotel bar and they start talking. Charlotte is also American, and staying in Tokyo with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) who is so tied up with work that he has little time for her. With displacement as a common factor, Harris and Charlotte strike up a quick friendship, and the remainder of the film explores how far and how deep this friendship can go. They have a night out on the town, visiting a club, an amusement arcade and ending up doing karaoke numbers with Charlotte's friends. Another time they lie in bed together and discuss the intimacies of marriage and child rearing. At one point Harris tenderly grasps Charlotte's foot as she sleeps, which conveys volumes about how he's feeling. It's clear that a kind of relationship is developing, but for a middle-aged man and a young woman, both already involved, the barriers to a full-blown affair are just too high.
   With so little actual 'action', Lost In Translation has to rely on mood and colour, nuance and detail for its impact, and in these areas it succeeds excellently. The quality and composition of the cinematography is positively painterly, with Lance Acord doing a great job as his own operator. Tokyo is displayed as a glittering playground of cheesy delights, with the customs and behaviour of its denizens as comically inscrutable as can be. Many of the shots serve as tableau vivants, piecing together to form an entirely visual narrative. Early on we see the tall Harris in a lift, head and shoulders above a throng of diminutive Japanese. We see him alone in his room, in the bath, in the gym, isolated in space and in his own melancholy.
   Bill Murray is superbly measured, managing to be both laconic and expressive by turns. His physical acting is terrific to watch. With an embarrassed glance, an ungainly strut or a sheepish smile he conveys more about the angst of middle age than the contents of pages of dialogue. By placing Murray in a scenario of existential displacement, temporarily trapped within alien parameters, Coppola inevitably evokes Murray's most celebrated film, Groundhog Day, and often it feels as though we are watching the further adventures of Phil Connors in Punxsutawney - but in an entirely pleasing and satisfying way.
   Scarlett Johansson too is very good in portraying a crisis of earlier life, the two-years-married wife who is finding out just how humdrum it can get when the novelty wears off. The fact that not much happens between these two is right for the film and ultimately true to life. It leaves us feeling that we have shared something real, as oppose to something of the movies. Lost In Translation may be a light piece, but it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
   DVD extras include deleted scenes, a conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola, trailer, and Kevin Shields' music video for City Girl.

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