By Henry Britt | | April 2, 2009 |
Science fiction auteur Frederick Pohl once said that “Nothing is so good that somebody, somewhere, will not hate it,” something I’ve found to be universally true. For every fanboy there is an equally rabid response on the opposite end of the spectrum. The difficulty comes in justifying that hatred to the aforementioned fanboy. So it is with a gleeful heart and a reluctant head that I submit to you an overappreciated film for the ages: Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen, Lost in Translation follows the travails of Bob Harris (Murray), an actor who’s come to Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial, an obvious metapoke at the selfsame Hollywood trend and Coppola’s own father. In the course of his short stay, Bob (who is married, if not entirely happily) chances to meet Charlotte (Johanssen), the bored and lonely wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who is gallivanting about Tokyo, consorting with the glitterati he shoots. The two form an initially tentative relationship, which slowly progresses into a romantic attachment as the two explore the foreign city together. Their burgeoning relationship is strained when Bob sleeps with the singer in the hotel bar where the two met, alienating Charlotte. The film, after facilitating a reunion of sorts, sees the two part at the airport as both are about to leave Tokyo to return to their respective miseries.
My major beef with the film lies in two key areas. First, and least bothersome, is the script, penned by Coppola (for which she won the Oscar that Bill Murray so richly deserved). The plotting was, in a word, dull. I mean, The English Patient dull. There, I said it, and it’s out there. I found myself praying for grim death about halfway through, but kept backtracking, saying to my delusional self “No, wait, certainly SOMETHING will happen at some point in this mess…Bill Murray is so phenomenal, how can it be bad…something’s going to happen.” But it doesn’t. Ever. Happen. The film beats the life out of the viewer with its abominable subtlety, and then, just when you think you’re about to get some sort of payoff, a whisper. A fucking whisper. Perhaps I’m spoiled. Perhaps such things are lost on me. But I rather think it’s an insult to my intelligence that, as a viewer, I’m not allowed to hear Bob’s final words to Charlotte, before a brief, chaste kiss parts them forever. The ending is like the amateur drag show version of The Bridges of Madison County…a tall, unfulfilling disappointment, all unwieldy knees and elbows and too much damn rouge.
My second and vastly more taxing annoyance with Lost in Translation was the performance of old Mushmouth, Scarlett Johansson. Some critics praised her for her simple take on a beautiful woman in an unhappy marriage. They’re wrong. Johansson vacillates between wistfully bored when she’s alone, overly pleased when she’s with Bob, and pouty when she’s with anyone else. It’s a three-chord performance à la Keanu Reeves, and it doesn’t fly, especially not when stacked up against the brilliance of Murray. Acting is never more than a series of moments strung together like Christmas lights on a tree, and she misses almost every major beat in one way or another. The only time she shows an ounce of absolute sincerity is in a scene just before the halfway mark, as Charlotte and Bob explore Tokyo, running through the streets with Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi), singing karaoke, and generally being comfortable in their own skins. The two share a cigarette alone in a hallway, and as Charlotte leans her head on Bob’s shoulder, a trace of a smile plays across her face. I believe it to be the only moment of real acting old Mushmouth has ever done, and while it’s a damn beautiful moment, you can’t put lipstick on a pig and call it anything other than gussied up pork chops.
The only saving graces of the film were Murray and his insanely touching and soft handling of the dialogue, and the direction. Murray is utterly brilliant, and adept at managing to combine the pain and loneliness in Bob with his awareness of his own body and special brand of humor, creating a captivating character study. From something as obvious as his encounter with a prostitute sent to his hotel room to something as understated as a phone conversation with his wife or the look on his face while waiting in a strip club, Murray shines. Coppola’s direction, while not genius, is inspired. Obviously maturing from her first film, the slightly over-dramatized but infinitely more enjoyable The Virgin Suicides, Coppola evinces a firm grasp of the subtle interactions of people in love, and indifference.
But in spite of Murray turning in a performance that well may be the crowning glory of his career (though, for my money, his turn in Rushmore was far more worthy) and the steady hand of Coppola, Lost in Translation, to me, sinks like a stone. The sad part is that it comes close enough to perfection to make its shortcomings so glaringly obvious. “I’m just completely lost,” Bob Harris intones to his distant wife at one point, and that’s just the feeling I had while watching it…lost in a vision that flies just off course enough to make it a nightmare.
Henry Britt is a writer from Houston who likes coffee and laughing at the misfortunes of others, in that order. You can email him or leave a comment below.