Directed by Sophia Coppola. USA. 2003.

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In Sofia Coppola's comedy of cultures Lost in Translation, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a middle-aged American actor, is in Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial and earn two million dollars in the process. When he is not filming, he watches television in his room, goes to the bar, gets faxes and FedEx packages from his wife but there is little connection either to his family or to the world around him. When he meets recent Yale graduate in philosophy Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the wife of a distant workaholic photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), the scene is set for romance but the only thing that meets is their minds. Both feel a sense of cultural isolation and there is always the suggestion of an adulterous romance but for a reason that is not explained, neither go there and there is little emotional content to their conversation. 

Bill Murray is one of my favourite actors and he is in top form, using his trademark dry wit to portray a jaded character but the film never really came alive for me, and I was uncomfortable with the many set pieces poking fun at Japanese language and culture. While we know that the attitudes are part of Harris' mindset, nonetheless the outlandish behavior of talk shows, incompetent translators, over-the-top Japanese masseuse, exaggerated stereotypes, and endless use of "l" and "r" language confusion only feed the fires of smugness and condescension. The director spent some time in Tokyo and experienced what it felt like to be alone in a foreign culture. While her experience may have been authentic, something has been lost in translation. I found the film to be contrived, lacking a core of conviction, purpose, or authenticity, a sorry contrast to Tsai Ming-liang's films about urban alienation that ring with a truth based on a profound understanding of place and time. 

Bob and Charlotte have the resources and time to travel, to discover their own humanity and the beauty of the culture they are in. Instead, all they do is go from one party to another desperately looking for fun. Coppola shows us the city's garish entertainment scene, its pachinko parlors, video games, talk shows, and karaoke but does not show anything that is endemic to Japanese culture. What we do see has been reduced to a class in flower arranging, a Buddhist temple, and a ride on the bullet train. In one of the few scenes that was genuinely moving, Bob and Charlotte sing at a karaoke club with Bob mouthing the words to Roxy Music's "More Than This". The moment comes alive but there is little more than this. Other scenes show promise but leave the viewer hanging. At the end of a party, Charlotte is wearing a pink wig and lays her head on Bob's shoulder as both stare into space to seemingly no purpose. Another sequence is at a golf course where Harris practices his swing against the background of the magnificent Fuji Mountains but the scene quickly switches to another as soon as he hits the ball. 

There are hints of a message but no coherent vision. The characters are lost but make no attempt to find each other or themselves, limiting their probing to a nighttime “Where are you from?” conversation that leads only to Bob’s placing his hand over her foot. They watch La Dolcé Vita on television suggesting the comparison between the empty pleasures of Tokyo and Rome but no point is made that the artificiality reflects the influence of Western culture or the superficiality of the characters. Lost in Translation has some insightful moments as well as some very funny ones. What is sad is that Ms. Coppola misses every opportunity to allow her characters to grow or to experience something deeper about themselves and the world around them, content to display ennui as the only possible outcome. 

Howard Schumann
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