Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #664
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 3, 2003
Sub-Genre: Drama/Character Study
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Producers: Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Score: Brian Reitzell, Kevin Shields, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Air
Editing: Sarah Flack
Studios: American Zoetrope, Tohokushinsha Film
Distributors: Focus Features, Pathé, Constantin Film, Momentum Pictures
Stars: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Fumihiro Hayashi, Akiko Takeshita, François Du Bois, Takashi Fujii, Hiromix
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Alphaville “Big In Japan”
 Air “Alone In Kyoto”
 Roxy Music “More Than This”
 The Jesus & Mary Chain “Just Like Honey”
With over 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, it’s no great surprise to me that so much gets lost in translation. For example, were you aware that the word cookie actually means tiny penis in Hungarian? No wonder Sesame Street didn’t go down so well in Europe. Meanwhile, the word speed is fart in Swedish, gift is poison in German, salsa translates to diarrhea in Korean, and peaches in Turkish means bastard. So the next time you help a dear, frail old lady across a busy intersection in Istanbul and she responds by calling you a peach, shove her back into oncoming traffic as she clearly didn’t appreciate the gesture. It’s a mindfield I tell you and, while we may think ourselves clever travelling with our handy pocket phrase books, that may not help you in Seoul when you order fish tacos with extra dip and they arrive smelling vaguely like Kim Taehyung’s colon.
One man who knows precisely what I’m driving at is fiftysomething movie star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who is still fighting off the jet lag after high-tailing it to Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. Seems like a cushy enough gig right? Indeed it feels like the ideal opportunity to meet the natives, test out the local cuisine (minus the salsa of course), and cram in a little sightseeing just to tick it off his bucket list. Above all else, he is looking forward to being able to blend in with the crowds and not be stopped every five yards to sign an autograph. Make no mistake, Bob has no intention of biting the hand that feeds him and appreciates every last paycheck that keeps him in the life of which he is accustomed. But it can be exhausting being in the public eye 24/7, and last time he checked his sagging balls for lumps, he wasn’t getting any younger. This may be a busman’s holiday, but all emphasis for him is on the latter.
While the virtual anonymity side of things is all well and good, being a stranger in a strange place has its distinct downsides. For starters, the language barrier makes even the most basic communication excruciating and that’s not to mention the culture clash. Quirky doesn’t even come close to describing the format of Japanese entertainment and, for all his best attempts to settle in with minimum fuss, this in-and-out TV spot gig soon has him feeling decidedly crotchety. To throw extra cookies in the wok, he hasn’t had a wink of sleep since he touched down on the landing strip. Not the deepest of sleepers at the best of times, Bob is far too discombobulated to be granted shut-eye. The sole consolation is the hotel bar near the lobby, where he can sip from his tumbler of Santory whisky while drinking in the no-tempo croons of whichever second-fiddle songbird has been booked for that evening.
One chance meeting during one such sorrow drowning exercise and suddenly everything starts to perk up a little for our forlorn lead. He befriends Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a college graduate in her early twenties who is feeling similarly displaced and spends most of her time in her hotel room. Her celebrity photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) is frequently on location for whatever assignment is penciled into his hectic timetable and appears too self-absorbed to realize how deeply uninspired she is feeling. Being so detached from his lifestyle has her questioning whether she really wants to forego her dreams to effectively be his cheerleader. There’s no question that John loves Charlotte, but there is over the terms of their union. Would he drop it all in a heartbeat to see her flourish? Is this the first leg of a desolate journey that will ultimately lead to heartbreak? Who is she really and how on Earth is she supposed to figure that out and spread those beautiful wings if they’ve already been clipped?
The connection is instant and sincere, with Bob also having arrived at a crossroads in his existence, albeit a few clicks farther down the trail. He has been married for 25 years and the love has long since been distilled into obligatory companionship. His wife doesn’t see him, not really, and it would be all too easy to put this down to a midlife crisis when there’s a little more to it than that. This is the culmination of many years of gradually feeling more anesthetized, and in Charlotte, he sees a young lady with her whole life ahead of her who he feels thirty years younger just by being around. In addition, she possesses maturity way beyond her years, and the same appreciation of irony and bone dry wit that keeps him from losing his mind. Neither has any intention of squeezing in a quickie before the maid arrives to spring clean the room; what is developing in beautifully understated fashion is a bona fide friendship as pure as the driven snow.
As sure as eggs are eggs (and not in fact Hebrew for pre-ejaculate), their friendship soon shows distinct signs of blossom. Dialogue remains sparing as both illustrate this flowering affection through the simplest glance or subtle smile of acknowledgement. Of course, we’re all aware of the elephant in the room, as there is evidently a mutual physical attraction swelling inside both of them but both remain quietly cautious as they’re under no illusion that the bubble they have created for themselves is eventually bound to burst. It speaks volumes for the lofty esteem they hold one another in that they choose not to act on such impulses, and as a result, there’s an innocence about their alliance that makes us will them on all the more. Like a time-sensitive holiday romance, every second we share with them feels precious, and we find ourselves attempting to overlook the fact that our journey together eventually has to come to an end.
While there is still time on the clock, Bob and Charlotte venture out into the hustle and bustle of Tokyo at night and wind up in a karaoke bar where they get to let their hair down and forget his pending departure. It is here that we observe just how at ease they are in each other’s company as they declare their undying love for one another without a solitary word being spoken. Given that Bob is old enough to ground her for a week if he so wishes, such a bond shouldn’t feel natural right? With the wrong personnel possibly but the almost telepathic understanding between the pair drastically closes the age gap and this is testament to the beautifully understated performances that the two actors offer up.
I’ve always been a huge admirer of Murray’s craft and the kind of comic timing he possesses, paired with a dry delivery that truly is second to none, elevated him to the very apex of my all-time list of cinematic heroes some time ago. However, primary exposure to his turn as Bob Harris took my regard for him to an entirely different level as he removes the clown shoes and slips into a pair of hotel slippers, before wiping off the face paint and inviting us to read every last contour in his beautiful road map of a face.
This didn’t go unnoticed by the Academy as Murray was nominated for the much coveted Best Actor, a rarity for someone known primarily as a comic actor. Ultimately he lost out to Sean Penn, and I shit you not, I wanted to cry for him as this was his moment and watching it pass by him like a runaway rickshaw was too desperately saddening for words. However, I consoled myself in the knowledge that he would later appreciate the irony of it all, once the initial disappointment had subsided of course.
What is incredible given how masterfully he commands our attention is that Johansson never once seems out of her depth in such distinguished company. I’ve never seen her anything less than excellent but the way in which she effortlessly exceeds it here is nothing short of miraculous. With bee-stung lips and a pair of peepers that could melt the polar cap, there can be no questioning her natural beauty, but here it feels utterly timeless and I believe that has something to do with the soul she is baring before us. That is the key word here as a display of serenity such as this cannot simply derive from either head or heart. It has to come from deeper. It took me over forty years to truly suss out the importance of soul and, when you consider Johansson was barely eighteen when she filmed this, it makes her performance all the more phenomenal.
I could blather on about the two leads until last orders at the bar but Murray and Johansson aren’t the only stars aligning for Lost in Translation. Director Sofia Coppola takes a tremendous step out of her father’s shadow and uses all the tricks she learned from her directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, to stamp her own exclusive identity on every last frame. Given that the moments that speak loudest are either bereft of dialogue or muffled by the hubbub of the busy Tokyo streets, the fact that she shepherds this passion project right the way from page to screen becomes critical.
Lest we not forget that, while her actors evidently understood their brief, it’s her soul invested also. Coppola dreamed up the entire concept based on her own travels to Tokyo during her twenties and it is plain to see that the overwhelming sense of isolation she conveys comes from personal experience. That said, her infatuation with this jostling metropolis is also very much evident and her lens romanticizes willingly on her behalf.
Lance Acord’s stunning photography is just as instrumental to the subtle seduction as it captures the bright neon lights of the big city like a collection of animate postcards each sealed with an affectionate kiss. Like Bob and Charlotte, we are meant to feel disoriented, overawed by the neon flashes and razzle dazzle around us. However, by the same token, this is a film all about finding bearings. We can never hope to memorize the layout but the intimate manner in which he frames our travel companions, blurring everything else around them into insignificance, ensures that we never once feel alone.
Anyhoots, my taxi has now arrived to whisk me away to the airport. However, I couldn’t possibly conclude without offering the elephant in the room some bamboo and giving my own take on the famously ambiguous ending. Coppola considered dubbing audio over the parting exchange to clear up any confusion and I’m thrilled that she thought better of it and kept this just between them. By doing so, she leaves us with our own souvenir to take away with us once the credits roll, one that will mean something different to each of its recipients. This is the most generous gift a filmmaker can bestow upon their audience as, regardless of where our future takes us, thanks to Lost In Translation we will always have Tokyo.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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