Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation is a film that will no doubt alienate many viewers in today's world. This will place me firmly in the "arty elitist" category for a moment, but it seems obvious to me that a society that will attend Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to the tune of $200 million in five days won't care for a film as simplistic and poignant as this -- OK, OK, it did only rake in $42 million its second weekend, which is deeply satisfying even if it is $42 million too much. There are those who might dismiss it as boring, pseudo-intellectual tripe but Sofia Coppola made, well, not a masterpiece, but an engrossing experience.

Her film seems to draw its inspiration from Linklater's Before Sunrise, that masterpiece of underplayed romance. It's a high bar to set for yourself, and Coppola doesn't measure up, but Lost in Translation moves in a different direction that makes it unique. Both films chart a romance between two star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of a foreign country. Coppola, however, bases her film in loneliness and alienation, where people are kept apart by more than fate.

Also unlike Linklater, Coppola takes advantage of her background: Japan is as integral to the story as Bob and Charlotte, even if it is a two-dimensional creation. It serves to further the themes expressed in its title: not only are Bob and Charlotte separated by age, they interact with others through a language barrier.

Bill Murray is playing against type as fading star Bob Harris, to great effect. Normally the merciless wit ripping apart every straight man who stands in his way, Murray is instead the put-upon one in Japan. He's there to film a whiskey commercial, and the director speaks to him in long, impassioned sentences. The translator tells Bob, "He said to turn toward the camera." "Is that all he said?" Bob doesn't let it get him down, though he is visibly upset that they give him iced tea and not the actual whiskey to drink. His marriage is cold and lifeless, and upon reaching his hotel he discovers that he forgot his son's birthday.

Charlotte's (Scarlett Johansson) marriage isn't doing so hot, either. She's in the country with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), who's following celebrities on their press tours. He keeps long hours, and whenever the starlet Kelly (Anna Faris) shows up, he suddenly gets uncomfortable in front of his wife. Charlotte, recently graduated from Yale with a degree in philosophy, is trapped in the ennui of a failed marriage transparent to everyone but the husband who desperately tries to maintain the image.

Bob and Charlotte stay at the same hotel, and they meet and eventually keep each other company in their down time. A friendship forms as they amble around Tokyo, through video arcades and karaoke bars slowly building to that moment of inevitable romance and...nothing. Coppola crafts true sexual tension in this film, the kind that doesn't just string us along until the end to give us that kiss and the swell of music. There's friction and walls between them, even before Bob has a moment of weakness with another woman.

These moments feel even more arduous under Coppola's piercing lens. Her fast-moving shots through Tokyo are thrilling, but it's when she plants the camera down to focus on this couple that the film becomes transcendent. These static shots convey the sense of depression and aimlessness that envelops them, and music only plays when they seem to break themselves out of their funks for a moment. That judicious use of movement, editing and non-diegetic sound makes Lost in Translation feel "realer" somehow than most movies, certainly in the bloated, fantastical realm of cinematic romance.

There are some who claim that Coppola paints a racist caricature of Japan in the film, and it's not hard to see why at first. The Japanese TV company sends Bob the "Premium Fantasy" masseuse, but her broken English only confuses and ultimately turns him off. Later, he appears on a talk show with "the Johnny Carson of Japan," who is a complete oddball who plays like every stereotype of weird Japanese TV rolled into one. Those characters border on the offensive, but I think that, for the most part, Coppola wished to stress the alienation of the film. When Murray stands a foot taller than anyone else in an elevator, it is not a joke about the height of Asians but a reminder that, as an American movie star in Japan, he cannot blend in. That nobody seems to speak English does not suggest that no one in the country knows the language -- though this film could have been about an Asian couple in America and no one would have reacted to a country full of people who can only speak English -- but that there are barriers between us all.

I saw a brief snippet of a review somewhere that called this a "deep movie for shallow people." I don't think it's trying to say much at all; its brilliance lies in its simplicity. This is nothing more than a frank portrayal of a human connection, one unrequited due to a mutual, reluctant acknowledgement of their differences. The final shot is already famous, and rightly so; in a film about the little moments we fail to pick up on, the details that separate us, we do not hear Bob's parting words to Charlotte, and I feel almost invasive for wondering what they might be. Moments like that make Lost in Translation a triumph despite its occasional over-reliance on stereotypes and its misleading philosophical discussions. This is nothing more than a simple story, beautifully told, and I couldn't be much happier with the final product.

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