‘Lost in Translation’ is one of those very rare American dramas where subtlety and nuance don’t take a back seat to overblown melodrama and cloying sentimentality. Tranquil and delicate, Sofia Coppola’s film offers an almost dream-like look at the city of Tokyo and its effect on two Americans.
Bob Harris is a 40-something movie star lured to the city for a few days by a multi-million dollar whisky endorsement contract. He’s somewhat embarrassed at his reason for being in Tokyo but, apart from the financial benefits, his trip is the latest episode in his midlife crisis.
It’s intended to provide a way of forgetting about his stalled film career and his unfulfilling home life where his young children and emotionally distant wife don’t seem to need him as a father or husband.
But Tokyo turns out to be less of an escape than a test of endurance. While days are filled with inane ad shoots, Harris’ nights are spent battling insomnia in the bar, jacuzzi, and swimming pool of the luxury hotel.
Charlotte, the young wife of a popular American photographer, is also struggling to sleep. Her empty days are spent trying to make sense of her future as she drifts around the same hotel or braves the city that she finds overwhelming. She is an outsider like Bob and, following a series of accidental encounters, the two strike up an unlikely friendship.
Coppola builds the film around the unusual relationship of the characters, who truly are lost. As they rely on each other in an attempt to come to terms with the city and the uncertainty of their own lives, we share in their moments of awkwardness, joy, sadness, and insecurity. Their time spent uncovering the city’s attractions (including sushi restaurants, video arcades, strip clubs and the requisite karaoke bars) is contrasted by comfortable silences and late-night conversations, sensitively handled by the minimalism of the director’s script.
Yet, while it seems as light as air, Coppola’s film is not lacking in substance. More than a human drama, ‘Lost in Translation’ has more than its fair share of quirky comedy, warped love story and travelogue elements. Despite an unhurried pace it provides a fascinating glimpse of Tokyo’s bustling madness — contrasted with scenes of traditional Japanese life.
Against this backdrop Bill Murray delivers a finely nuanced performance as Harris. We feel his sense of awe as he arrives in Tokyo, his frustration at dealing with his wife back home, and his brief moment of pride at seeing himself on a billboard. But most of all, we experience his increasing fatigue. Even when the script resorts to some heavy handed jokes focusing on the communication breakdown between Japanese and English, Murray resists the temptation to go over the top. Instead, his droll disposition during the ad shoots creates laugh-out-loud hilarity in a well-worn scenario.
Despite her youth, the relative unknown Scarlett Johansson manages to hold her own against Murray. Her Charlotte is mature and disillusioned for her age, and almost overcome by that sense of insecurity. But she still has an infectious sense of fun and inquisitiveness that helps Bob gain a sense of appreciation for Tokyo.
It is a sense of appreciation which the viewer can share as Coppola’s magical film, helped by a suitably atmospheric soundtrack, explores the city and its effect on two people.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.