Chris's Film Reviews

Lost In Translation (2003)

A review by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.


Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

I'm afraid that this whole five star thing is getting to be a bit of a habit. I don't intentionally set out to give good reviews to films, but I do tend to go and see films that I've heard a good buzz about. So I've done it again.

In the case of Lost In Translation, I knew very little about the film at all. I knew it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola's daughter Sofia, I knew it was set in Japan, and I knew it had Bill Murray in it. I didn't want to know more than that, in case something spoiled it for me.

Nothing did. Quite the reverse: I wasn't prepared for a film that was quite as fresh, unassuming, and lyrical as this one. I haven't felt as uplifted by a film set in the contemporary world since I saw Amelie a few years ago.

The plot, such as it is, is that faded film star Bob Harris (Old Grey Whistle Test fans take note), played by Bill Murray, arrives in Tokyo to fulfil an endorsement deal. At his hotel, he meets Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson - who appears to be in most new films coming out this month. Charlotte is a bright, pretty young Yale graduate, who doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. She's married to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer with friends that are shallow, incomprehensible, or just plain thick. The two end up spending time together, discuss life and the search for the meaning of it all. At the same time, they both totally fail to establish any meaning or achieve any understanding of the spectacular people, places or society amongst which they find themselves. Tokyo gently washes over them, in all its berzerk, neon glory, and leaves them both profoundly unchanged - just perplexed.

For me, that's the main theme of the film. Travel can do odd things to us. I know, I've been there. It messes up our circadian rhythms, so that it gets dark too early or too late and you can't get to sleep when you want to. Travel plonks us down somewhere where the drinks don't taste right, the food's weird, and the TV shows don't make sense. You might not even be able to communicate with the natives without an interpreter. Travel takes away our little, homey creature comforts and leaves us playing the role of an explorer on an alien world to keep our sanity. What happens next is down to who we are as individuals. What do we focus on? What are our needs? With so much to do, with so many opportunities out there, why does so much of our lives become lost in translation from potential to reality?

The film is a joy to watch. It has an edgy, improvised feel, almost as if Coppola just happened upon a real set of people who allowed her to follow them round and film them. The acting is superb: I don't think I've seen Bill Murray do anything this good, ever. He's natural, awkward, funny, and lost, from moment to moment. Johanssen might be beautiful, but she doesn't rely on her beauty to do her acting for her. Some folks have suggested that Charlotte's relationship with her husband is based on Coppola's relationship with Spike Jonze - and that the ditzy American film star Kelly (Anna Faris) they bump into at the hotel may or may not be based on Cameron Diaz, who Jonze cast in Being John Malcovich. Whether this is true or not isn't really important - the interaction between the characters is nuanced, keenly observed, and brilliantly executed. And funny!

Japan is spectacular. The set pieces are charming and funny; for instance, during the hospital scene between Bill Murray and the old man, just watch the two women in the background. The film also sounds wonderful - and I'm not just saying that 'cos I know some of the folks involved. The choice of music is inspired, and the karaoke scene is utterly brilliant. Saying any more than that would spoil it - just go and see it.

I have to see the film again. I hope the DVD release gets top-notch treatment, because it'll be worth getting. The depth the film achieves is all the more amazing, considering it was shot in less than a month. And, of course, it'll be interesting to see how it gets on at the Oscars this year, because it's definitely one of the most accomplished films I've seen in a long time. So, yes, I've done it again.

Chris's rating:Five Stars

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