Well, shit! Shit damn hell! I actually really liked this film! I so rarely get to say that without recourse to lying that it comes as a stunning refreshment on these rare opportunities.
Sofia Coppola has, at least in my mind, utterly redeemed her flat, turgid performance in Godfather III with her directorial abilities. Lost in Translation is a film about two Americans in Tokyo, one successful though floundering in his middle age, and one young and uncomfortably aimless, who meet and bond over their mutual feelings of isolation. The screenplay dispenses with the typical three-act structure, obvious, time-worn plot arcs, overused dramtic reversals, and all the other trappings of films with similar set-ups. It poops on them and tosses them into the wood chipper with yesterday's rat food. That crap isn't needed here. Neither, for that matter, is much in the way of plot. The film is less about specific, distinct events and more about general feeling. Those expecting a by-the-numbers romantic comedy are likely going to be disappointed, but them's the breaks. There's a quarter million other films that fall into that category already, and we don't need a quarter million and one.
Bill Murray as Bob Harris, the verging on has-been film star, turns in one of his most understated yet still funny performances ever. Scarlett Johanssen, as Charlotte, wife of a go-getting young photographer, is clearly an up-and-coming talent and is beyond adorable. She seriously needs to drop me a line as soon as she learns of my existence, which probably won't be terribly soon as she currently has no knowledge of me because I'm not some weirdo stalker who's been snooping around her trash bins at all hours of the night. Nope. And it's one of the film's great strengths to avoid being too excessive. Neither of our pair is in an abusive or even hostile relationship, nor do either of them whine and complain about their respective situations. It would be all too easy to make some tragic or sappily sugar-embalmed May-December romance out of this scenario, and happily Sofia Coppola didn't take the road most traveled, pitted and glazed with roadkill. While neither promoting or deriding romantic attachments, the film is about the simple and almost childlike rush of finding some other human being to play and hang out with, without all the encumbrances that come along with protracted relationships. Lost in Translation is, in this sense, entirely real and honest in its under-the-top take on some totally believable human beings, who are both likeable and imperfect. At no point do we feel we're being fed some phony line or contrived artifice, and that alone would be attention-worthy, even if the rest of the film didn't hit the notes it does.
On the subject of notes, the original music was produced by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine (the band, not the movie,) including MBV's "Sometimes," the all-time best song to turn out the lights and kiss your girlfriend to, a currently theoretical view which I'll get around to confirming as soon as Scarlett remembers to phone me. It's loud, ambient, dreamy guitar music that seems to float through the air and is perfectly suited to drifting through the neon landscape of Tokyo or simply having a half-awake conversation with your newest best friend. Like the film it complements, it moves steadily ahead without building to anything or falling into typical preordained structure, a long-sustained reverie in the making. If that sounds stagnant and dull, well, it may be for you, but to me the overall effect is that of a two-hour vacation from both the real world and the fabricated one we usually escape to via film.
Perhaps I'm biased in this movie's favor due to its similarity to events in my own life, although I've never been to Japan, and the girl wasn't half my age (that would have made her about 11, which would've made me about a convict.) It's a knowing nod to all those who have had a simple, elegant brush with another person that made your life better, in the immediacy and in lifelong recollections. There will always be the bored and the cynical who will dismiss the film as pointless or unengaging, but they can go take a piss someplace else, because frankly, I'm not interested in hearing it. The film isn't bereft of story; the characters are the story. I've rarely ever encountered a film which felt quite so much as if it could have been based on real-life events, as if it were a sort of omniscient documentary. I suppose the pair could've gotten into a furious battle with pirates and met God, but I'm doubtful as to how much that would improve the experience.
Okay, one small quibble: I've mentally reviewed it and can come up with no good reason as to why the film opens with a medium close-up on Scarlett's butt. The film isn't about her butt, and it wasn't directed by Luc Besson, so I'm floundering for a meaning there. I guess I won't let it keep me up at night. When she phones, which should be any second now, I'll ask her.
Incidentally, the answer, to all those who don't know, is "Yes, Japanese TV shows really are that ridiculous." Hell, for all I know, the program featured in this film is an actual series over there. Foreign people are crazy!
-review by Matt Murray