Ordinary People

Lost in Translation

If you talk to people who like movies but don’t watch them for a living, you’ve probably run into a few who’ve been puzzled by the praise heaped on writer/director/co-producer Sofia Coppola’s second feature, the Oscar-nominated Lost in Translation. They typically find it slight and underwhelming, as one user did on the Internet Movie Database:

“I cannot believe that this movie would even be considered for an Academy Award. The worst movie that Bill Murray has ever participated in. I kept waiting for some universal, wonderful revelation ... didn’t happen. No character growth or development ... just two people in a foreign place wasting time with each other.”

Is this a complaint?

I ask facetiously because although it’s clearly meant as one, it’s an accurate description of the movie, and it captures some of its essence. A big part of the charm of Lost in Translation is that there is no epiphany and little character development; it’s a gentle, intimate study of two specific but relatable characters with the detail and resonance of a good short story. It approaches modest perfection.

And I don’t mean “modest” as faint praise. The movie is small-scale drama, not Drama, but that doesn’t mean it’s less important, valid, or good. Lost in Translation has a light, whimsical tone that recognizes that the movie is not about life and death or even anything lasting; it evokes wonderfully the fleeting passion of a near affair, intense in the moment but probably quick to fade. The film’s lack of dramatic heft is perhaps its most endearing element; it’s one of the few movies in recent memory that portrays the lives of truly ordinary people in a way that feels honest and realistic.

Bill Murray is the American movie star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial for the princely sum of $2 million. Scarlett Johansson is fresh-faced Charlotte, accompanying her photographer husband to Japan. They meet in their hotel and become companions bordering on lovers. Of course, they’re both going to return home to the States, and he doesn’t seem particularly inclined to give up his spouse, and they really have very little in common except trouble sleeping, so they must part ways eventually. And that’s about it.

Murray is given a role that showcases his comedic talent and his range, one that allows him to actually play an honest-to-goodness human being (probably for the first time since The Razor’s Edge) while also offering plenty of opportunities for his deadpan humor. (That he’s playing a movie star is largely irrelevant, primarily giving him an excuse to be funny and charming.) Johansson, a mere 19 years old at this writing, more than holds her own, natural and appealing and confident.

Johansson’s character is refreshingly unburdened by young-adult movie angst, and she’s shockingly plain. And so is Bob Harris, worn down by the demands of his job — even if it does pay a little more than average — and his marriage. Bob is a portrait of loneliness and middle-aged marital ennui and inertia, while Charlotte looks at herself alone in a hotel room in a strange country and wonders how the hell she got there. Their connection is convenient companionship, and while the relationship is exciting and fun and fresh and a pinch dangerous, they both seem to understand that it’s just for a few days.

Bob certainly seems to want to keep things simple. Coppola at one point puts him in bed with a washed-up jazz singer, and his stricken expression upon waking reveals a man instantly petrified by regret. It’s a loaded moment, because of course Bob has cheated on his wife, but he’s also kinda cheated on Charlotte, with whom he’s sorta cheating on his wife. To have sex with Charlotte — someone he actually has feelings for — would further complicate the situation, for both of them.

It’s less clear how far Charlotte would go. She’s hurt by Bob’s one-night stand — quick to make acid-tongued comments about their age difference — and she seems unhappy in her young marriage. But she doesn’t make a move.

Their parting is bittersweet and somewhat private — Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear that the audience can’t hear — and shows Coppola in command of her material as a writer and director, with a maturity and restraint that’s amazing considering she’s only 32 right now. There are a dozen ways Lost in Translation could have degenerated into shit — most of them involving cranking up the tears — but Coppola stays the course, keeping the movie small and minor and authentic.

And that’s what makes it fresh and alive. People who claim that Lost in Translation barely exists have been infected by big movies, with their big budgets, big events, big emotions, big special effects. Most movies work, at best, in the margins of real life, out of the realm of everyday experience for most people in the audience. Look at Lost in Translation’s best-picture company: Master and Commander, Mystic River, The Return of the King, and Seabiscuit. Three are Big Stories, and one is a Big Issue. Look back at past best-picture nominees. Of course Coppola’s movie looks small in comparison.

But its goals are far harder to accomplish. Computer technology has made spectacle easier to stage and film, and money can buy that. It can’t buy a good script, and while acting talent does cost, the return on investment for a studio’s acting dollar diminishes (or even disappears) at a fairly low level. A million-dollar man is often as good an actor or better than a $5- or $10- or $20-million man.

What Coppola creates in Lost in Translation is something that has nothing to do with money, star power, or Hollywood high concept: emotional nuance grounded in real life. Some people might emerge from the movie muttering, “How dull. That could’ve been my life.” And that’s exactly the point. Few people are making this kind of movie these days, and certainly nobody is doing it this well.

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