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‘Lost’ translates to bittersweet laughs

Review: Coppola secures her directorial reputation
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is a funny, bittersweet movie that uses cultural dislocation as a metaphor for people who have gotten lost in their own lives.

This movie contains priceless slapstick from Bill Murray, who also delivers a finely tuned performance with the beautiful Scarlett Johansson, and a visual and aural design that cultivates a romantic though melancholy mood. In only her second feature, Coppola has made a poised, intelligent film that nicely balances laughs with a poignancy rarely seen in American movies. If Focus Features markets “Lost in Translation” carefully, this most original comedy could win audiences well beyond art houses.

The story takes place in Tokyo, much of it in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which becomes a cool, comforting cocoon for two Americans cut off from the city by their cultural and linguistic ignorance. They hang out at the hotel’s bar, restaurant, pool and bedrooms, gazing out occasionally from high-rise windows at a city that intrigues but bewilders them.

Bob Harris (Murray) is a grumpy movie star in town to shoot a whiskey commercial. He is not only plagued by jet lag and gloom over a deteriorating marriage of many years; he is also in the midst of a midlife crisis that dampens his spirits but not his wit.

Charlotte (Johansson), the neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), experiences a similar air-conditioned nightmare. Married two years, she already feels lost in the relationship, unable to participate in her husband’s career or pinpoint what she wants out of life. When she ventures into the city, she is confronted by a distorted version of Western modernity. When she reaches out to Buddhism, all she gets is a temple full of priests chanting an incomprehensible Japanese.

That language leads to many of the jokes promised by the film’s title. When Murray receives lengthy instructions from his Japanese director, his overwhelmed translator boils them down to: “Turn to camera, please.” (Coppola wisely uses no subtitles, placing the viewer in the same bewilderment as her protagonists.)

These two people discover each other late at night at the bar. Neither one can sleep. A friendship evolves in their mutual isolation. When her husband leaves on assignment, Charlotte invites Bob out with her Japanese friends. The two make the rounds of clubs, karaoke joints, strip bars, private homes and video-game arcades.

Coppola's steady hand Coppola sees in Tokyo’s crowded, neon-lit urban landscape a society estranged from its own culture. The night is filled with pleasure-seekers obsessed by games, toys and American pop culture. Only when Charlotte takes a train to Kyoto is she able to experience the old Japan of ancient temples and gardens, tea houses and kimono-clad figures.

The movie flirts with a sexual relationship between these two, but Coppola holds back, aware not only of the characters’ age differences but a realization that what ails the couple cannot be resolved with sexual healing.

This role fits Murray like his own skin. A middle-aged burnout who sees no challenges on his horizon gradually changes into a man revitalized by another alienated soul. His comic touch enriches the character with a self-deprecating wit and, in a few sequences, a rubbery physicality that earns sustained laughs. Johansson makes Charlotte’s loneliness and disillusionment palpable as the woman is cut off from life in ways she never imagined.

In his brief sequences, Ribisi leaves the impression of a man for whom a moment of reflection represents lost time. Anna Faris absolutely nails the satiric role of a shallow young actress at a press junket who adores the very cultural wackiness that so alienates Bob and Charlotte.

Using high-speed film stock, cinematographer Lance Acord gives the glaring neon and numbingly sleek interiors a kind of romantic sheen. The score produced by Brian Reitzell created out of Japanese musical themes and “Tokyo dream-pop” adds to the sense of an Eastern city that has succumbed in large measure to Western culture.