movie film review | chris tookey

Lost in Translation

© Focus Features. Photo by Yoshio Sato - all rights reserved
  Lost in Translation Review
Tookey's Rating
4 /10
Average Rating
8.39 /10
Bob Harris: Bill Murray (pictured right), Charlotte: Scarlett Johansson (pictured left)
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Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola

Released: 2003
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 102

A middle-aged film star (Bill Murray) falls for a young woman (Scarlet Johansson) in Tokyo.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Few actors do crumpled, middle-aged defeatism as expressively as Bill Murray, and the memorable moments in Lost in Translation are when director Sofia Coppola (daughter of the famous Francis Ford) trains her camera on Murray and allows him simply to act. The picture does capture the strange weightlessness, alienation and isolation of staying in a smart hotel on one’s own; and Murray communicates a powerful sense of middle-aged disappointment and regret. I really liked and admired those aspects of the movie. If only the rest of Coppola’s film were that good.

Lost in Translation is about a middle-aged, 25 years-married film star (Murray) who visits Tokyo to shoot a lucrative whisky commercial and stays on to do a TV chat show so silly and worthless, it makes Graham Norton's show look like Face to Face. Bored and in despair, Murray falls for a woman who could be his grand-daughter, two years married and in her early twenties (Scarlet Johansson).

She's a Yale Philosophy graduate (though we see no conspicuous evidence of intellect), which allows her to be discontented with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a superficial idiot who talks in cliches, doesn't know that Evelyn Waugh was a man and is seemingly more attracted to his ex (Anna Faris), an airhead actress who looks and speaks suspiciously like Cameron Diaz (who just happens to be an old friend of Ms Coppola's husband, director Spike Jonze). One weakness of the film is that we never know what attracted Johansson to her husband in the first place, what keeps them together, or why we should care.

You can understand what Johansson sees in Murray: intelligence, a sardonic sense of humour and a sadness that she could possibly alleviate. But what does he see in her, besides firm young flesh and adoration that he is no longer getting from his wife, who's more interested in their children and redesigning their home? There's the central problem. Although Johansson's character is meant to be cerebral, she has practically no inner life.

Coppola's flabby, discursive screenplay spends much too long making facile jokes at the expense of the Japanese, trying to outdo Americans with their idiotic enthusiasm for capitalism (maybe Sofia should get together for her next picture with Edward Zwick). All too many of the gags rely on the supposedly hilarious inability of Japanese people to pronounce English properly. If any of the Japanese characters have feelings, Ms Coppola isn't interested in them.

The jokes at the expense of Californian airheads are equally laboured and repetitive. The editing is peculiarly misjudged. Some scenes go on for far longer than necessary; at other times Coppola cuts away from moments that might contain genuine emotion.

The best aspect, apart from Murray's performance, is the cinematography by Lance Acord. But all the atmospheric shots of Tokyo from the backs of cabs can't compensate for the film's bland unwillingness to engage with Japanese culture and its inability to make us care deeply about the central relationship.

Since a high proportion of film critics are grumpy and middle-aged, it is hardly surprising that a movie which so blatantly caters for menopausal wish-fulfilment can pick up adulatory reviews. But this is a shambolic effort, with precious little to say. Even to call it a movie implies a degree of action and forward momentum that it conspicuously lacks. Some have likened it to Brief Encounter, but it is of nowhere near the same quality. The plot and characters are scarcely developed. Much of the film consists of Murray looking quizzically alienated or gazing longingly at Johansson and then, er, doing nothing about it.

Fatally, the film gets stuck on showing us evidence of the leading characters' existential angst over and over again, but never explores the potentially dramatic tension between love and loyalty. Yes, we hear a little about Murray's two children, but they don't inhibit him from having adulterous sex with the hotel's resident cabaret singer (Catherine Lambert, in yet another thankless role that suffers from Coppola's blinkered condescension). And what about the huge age gulf between Murray and Johansson? The issue is simply never addressed.

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