I have tried to rent this movie since it first came out, finally getting help from Coco Chanel (at least, that’s what I call her). Unlike some of my recent reviews, where there is not much to say, I could write five hundred miles on this film.
I included this review with Insomnia because on the surface, all the main characters suffer from the same problem. But where lack of sleep in Insomnia comes from inner-demons, here it comes from a malaise of life, a lack of direction, a boredom, ennui, sort of getting to the end of your rope when you’re not going anywhere.
This is a difficult movie to explain to people, because on the surface it doesn’t sound interesting. And to many, it may not be. Most of the people I’ve spoken with either love it or hate it. The two people I watched this with argued the whole time about (among other things) whether the film was boring or transcendent.
I come down on the good side, but I can certainly see how people wouldn’t like this. I truly think people aren’t going to like this movie unless they relate to the characters, of which there are three.
One is Bill Murray, who plays Bob Harris, a movie star on the downside of a career, in Japan to hide from his wife and kids and do commercials for whiskey. Harris is lost and alone, awash in the obsequiousness of Japanese culture; it’s like they are thanking him for allowing himself to be thanked.
Murray plays this part dead-perfect, as a funny man who doesn’t have enough energy to be funny, which takes more talent than just hamming it up all over the place. This is definitely Murray’s best work. We see him bored, restless, unsure of what’s going on, but too tired to care that much.
The other main character is Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson. You may have seen her in Ghost World, and if not, I recommend you check it out. Charlotte is about 22, in Tokyo with her photographer husband, who is kind of full of himself that actual movie stars (well, “B” movie stars) will talk to him, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of time for Charlotte. She’s awash in the great sea of aloneness too.
There are quite a few extended shots of Charlotte and Bob doing nothing but lying around. (In Charlotte’s case, this involves considerably fewer clothes, which sparked another debate between the two women watching. It involves the opening shot, and I won’t ruin it for you, but when you watch it, remember this: are they pink or are they orange?)
Johansson is incredible here, equally as good as Murray, when many young starlets would be overwhelmed. Her character is a bit mean, which might make her unlikable, but she plays it just right. There was also an argument about whether Johansson was pretty and whether she was pregnant. She wasn’t, but she does carry a bit of extra weight, which I loved. I also love how she is not traditionally beautiful (in the Hollywood speak of washboard abs, jutting symmetrical tits, perfect teeth and super-defined cheekbones), but is still appealing and desirable because she just is herself. I don’t know how to explain it better.
There is also quite a bit of hanging around with the only other major character, the city of Tokyo. We get a real feel for this strange exotic city, and what it’s like to be alone there, not knowing anybody, or anything.
At this point you may think not a whole lot happens in this movie. And, to a point you’re right. The characters do eventually meet, in the hotel bar where they’re both staying. There is no immediate spark, but over several more chance meetings, they strike up a friendship, the kind only two lonely people in a foreign city could come up with.
This isn’t a typical Hollywood movie. What you think might happen with these two doesn’t. Lost in Translation isn’t about that. It’s more about the feeding of the soul, and trying to find what’s missing. I don’t know how well it will relate to some people. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I really think unless you’ve been where these people are, what’s going on isn’t going to really appeal to you in any visceral or emotional way.
I don’t mean Tokyo, although that might certainly help (or at least, to have been a stranger in a strange land). What I mean more is the sense of aloneness that these characters feel when we meet them. Everyone goes through periods of sadness, periods of “depression,” for lack of a better word. But unless you’ve been to the point in you’re life where you are where these two people are, it’s not the same. If you’ve ever been too tired to sleep for days on end, if you’ve ever been bored and restless with everything, if you’ve ever wasted time on nothingness for hours and then wondered what just happened, if you’ve ever looked in the mirror for way too long and asked yourself, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” then I think you’ll relate to these people.
I did more than relate. I loved them like they were real people. When they screwed up, I got upset, like they were actual people I cared about. When they were happy—even just for a minute—I was happy. At the end something happens that we the audience don’t get to see, and part of me was frustrated, but another part of me realized that it was for these two alone; they deserved their privacy. That’s how real they became to me.
There’s too much more to say, here, and I probably won’t get to the heart of it. Lost in Translation is about finding yourself, but not in a traditional way. It’s about love, but not in a traditional way. It’s about movement (which my friend Bear pointed out is another meaning for “translation”), but not in a traditional way. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that nothing going on in this movie is traditional, at least in how we’re used to seeing our pre-packaged and short-cut entertainment/morality tales.
Will you like it? I did. I laughed at the scenes demonstrating how difficult it really is to “translate” a foreign language. I laughed at the silliness of some situations. I laughed at Charlie Brown (you’ll see). But even though this is a comedy, it’s a very sad movie, too, and I didn’t have a problem with that. I was sad at all the sad scenes, but in a good way, if you know what I mean.
If you don’t know what I mean, if you think sad is never good, then that’s probably a good indicator you won’t like Lost in Translation. Just remember if you see it, to give them their privacy.
Suspension of Disbelief Index: 0. This is real life.
Genre Grade: I have no idea what to call this kind of movie. Ostensibly it’s a Romantic Comedy, although it’s neither. I guess I’ll go with Soulful Meditation, and give it an A.
Pantheon Percentile: 89.