Lost in Translation

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A perhaps under-watched gem from the early 2000’s, “Lost in Translation” offers us insights into the lives of two lost souls in Tokyo that reminds of us of our most basic needs: connection, happiness, and purpose in life. It’s a smart, hilarious, sad yet sweet film that deserves eyes on it even 16 years after its release.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, the first of the lost souls. He’s an aging American movie star in his 50’s, who’s gone to Tokyo to be in Suntory whiskey commercials. Back at home he has a wife who faxes him urgent messages about fabric samples and kids who are doing fine without him. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, the other lost soul. She’s traveling with her photographer husband John, who clearly values his career over his wife. Both Murray and Johansson give wonderful performances. It’s hard to believe that Johansson was only 17 at the time of filming, yet she pulls off the aimless wanderings of a 20-something year college graduate effortlessly. Murray masks his well-known comedic wit under the weariness of a man in his midlife crisis.

The two characters are an unlikely pair, but instantly form a bond. Both are lost: lost in the culture and language of Japan, lost in the midst of navigating their marriages, and lost in finding their identities. Rather than following the paths of lesser movies that would take their relationship under the sheets, Coppola elevates their relationship with realistic conversation as they explore Tokyo together.

The power of language is integral to the film. It can make us feel alienated but is also capable of creating deep connection between two strangers in a hotel bar. In the beginning, both Charlotte and Bob struggle to sleep. Their temporary insomnia could be attributed to jet lag or could also be from the lack of another soul willing to listen and care for them.

Bob doesn’t understand a word of Japanese, and even when an English speaker approaches him, they’re more interested in Bob the actor, not Bob as a human being. When an English speaker like Ana Faris’ character talks to Charlotte, it’s self-absorbed noise. Phone calls to friends and family don’t help either as the person on the other end is usually on autopilot. It’s only after Charlotte engages Bob in real conversation at the hotel bar that either of them is able to fall asleep. Their dialogue feels authentic and unscripted, peppered with moments of silence that speak louder than words. Like many of us in our own lives, they don’t have all the answers. By the end of the film, Bob and Charlotte don’t actually solve their problems, but they feel better having met each other, and we feel a bit better too.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Director: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

2003, R, 102 min

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