Lost in Translation (2003)

Directed by Sofia Coppola

The problem with dry humour, especially when it’s sarcastic, is no one is quite sure when you are being serious. You may turn to someone and say, “Yes, it’s a beautiful day,” and they think, “What’s he mean by that? Is he laughing at me? I can’t tell.”

This is the problem with placing Bill Murray in a dramatically rooted film – getting the audience to take him seriously.

With past performances like Ghost Busters, Scrooged and, to a lesser extent, Groundhog Day (not to mention numerous other movies), his characters have been variations (and not so varied) on his comic persona.

So writer-director Sofia Copploa takes a huge risk with Lost in Translation and Bill Murray takes on an enormous challenge in the film because the character, while having a degree of dry wit and sarcasm, is not comic.

It is a dramatic character and the success of the film is partly due to the success of Murray’s performance and Coppola’s handling of the way the character is presented.

That they do this while retaining humour is credit to how well they succeed.

It’s a simple enough story. An actor who has known some success in the past is in Tokyo to do commercials for a big pay day. While there he is adrift and estranged by a culture that is not his. He is living in a hotel and bored while also suffering from extreme jet lag.

He meets a much younger woman (Scarlett Johansson) named Charlotte who is an similar circumstance.

She is with her husband, who is obsessed by the work he’s involved with while in Japan. While he loves her, he is not terribly perceptive and doesn’t see how she’s adrift and lonely in this world that is so strange to her.

The actor and the young wife meet in the hotel bar. They quickly become friends having discovered another who is more or less in the same situation they are in. It’s the old saw about misery loves company. Together, while Japan remains strange to them, they discover the country and come to love it.

It’s a story of friendship with romantic overtones. It’s a sweet film though not with any of the negative connotations that often come with that sort of description. It manages this by being truthful and real.

There is a kind of urban coldness to the look of the film despite the dazzling city lights.

Coppola manages to do a number of interesting and exceptional things while telling her story. My favourite is the way she captures the feel of a city, at least it’s night life.

Cities, in this sense, are generic – one is the same as another regardless of what some whould have you believe. Clubs have the same feel; the noise is the same; lights flash in the same way. In fact, the only thing that distinguishes Tokyo in the film from any other city is the number of Asians present.

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