Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 24, 2003 10:21 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
Life in limbo

He’s a fading movie star in town to shoot a whisky ad and she’s a young rock star photographer’s wife along on a busy assignment. They’re both in the Tokyo Hyatt Regency, bored and lonely and with nothing to do, out of sync with where they are and drifting away from their marriages. (They also don’t seem to have brought along anything interesting to read.) They meet and have a little wistful, unconsummated affair. He leaves, and on the way out they have a few goodbye kisses. Now you know the plot of Lost in Translation. But it's not about the plot.

Sofia Coppola has chosen to make a movie about states of limbo. She’s also made a movie about Bill Murray’s face, which oscillates ceaselessly between serious and comic, famous and forgotten, sexy and numbed-out. Most of the action happens on that face or in the engulfing shadows of the big dark hotel. The sequence where Murray as Bob Harris poses for alternate takes of the Suntory ad, with tiny alterations in his weary eyes and bored voice, is a quietly hilarious tour de force that speaks volumes about repression and anger.

A clip from La Dolce Vita reminds us of the jaded wanderers in Sixties Italian art films that Pauline Kael called “Sick Soul of Europe Movies," for which Sofia may share a nostaligia with her famous father, though Sofia is as restrained in her response to their Italian heritage as her father was flamboyant. Anyway this is 21st century American art. Compare Murray’s face with Mastroianni’s and you'll see how far this movie is from La dolce vita or La notte. The whole “sick soul” thing isn’t philosophical or romantic any more; it hasn’t even got much soul. Sofia has taken Sixties loss of will into the default mode.

We may be in Japan, but this isn’t Antonioni meets Kurosawa; it's Antonioni meets Joan Didion. The movie has flown across time zones to Tokyo dragging a hefty dose of California anomie with it.

There are plenty of exotic images but the cinematography is pretty rather than sexy and conveys a sense of trapped airlessness. Every scenic “escape” from the Hyatt to the brightness of a party, a pachinko hall, a karaoke stage, a shrine, a TV show is illusory: Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob always wind up back in their sterile rooms with their sealed off city view panoramas and their jet lag. The images rarely breathe. (They're not meant to. This is what being stuck in a big hotel is like.) Once in a while the camera selects cute Japanese guys talking at a party or playing weird video games or something. But this isn't Japan, it's limbo. The reminders of California are constant in Bob’s phone calls home to his busy indifferent wife. It’s even embedded in their circadian rhythms. Days pass, but they’re still on California time. The sense of imprisonment in a great airless hotel is horrible and real. The Regency is a metaphor for Bob's and Charlotte's suspended state.

Japan lends itself to a comedy that is funny at the risk of condescension. The “Japanese Johnny Carson” who has Bob on his show is a repellant little nelly clown. The director of the Suntory ads Bob has come to do for $2 million is a caricature too, a small, noisy, ineffectual man. (Bob is rigorously and sardonically polite with him.) Ditto the courtesan who comes to Bob’s room and says “Lick my stockings,” or “Rip my stockings”: the absurd, unsexy scene makes her seem remote and ridiculous. It's a bit unfortunate that there is nothing so attractive to Bob in this whole huge city as this one white woman he has met at the bar.

The doubts about their marriages are there, but not to become motives for adultery. Bob instead more or less by desperate accident has a night with the chanteuse from the café upstairs, and that’s it.

Bob doesn’t have enough energy to commit a serious infidelity. It’s his spouse who has the position of strength in the marriage: she has her life and the kids and doesn’t need him. She's just a voice, the busy wife and mom at the end of the phone, and she becomes a bit of a caricature, like some of the Japanese.

The movement of the film is droll, but numb. Lost in Translation is a stylish, sophisticated, witty piece of work. It’s appropriately jaded and worldly-wise for a thirty-two-year-old director with a remarkable pedigree. But it's also somewhat lacking in courage because in exchange for all the polish her work has here, Sofia Coppola has paid the rather heavy price of not taking emotiional chances. Nonetheless it’s a very accomplished and by no means unmemorable film.

Murray’s performance is, in its way, an absolute gem, perfectly modulated and, for a comic, almost thrillingly, shockingly recessive. He has spoken in public about his respect for the director and he shows it in his selfless performance. It’s sharply focused, as his Polonius recitation in Michael Almareyda’s Hamlet wasn’t, but he never grandstands. Murray is good, damned good, but not the presence than Mastroianni was. Mastroianni could be pretty vacuous at times, but he won your heart with his charm and sadness. One can almost believe in Murray’s Bob Harris, and one can’t help liking him, but one can’t be moved by him.

There are many good details, but the overall structure isn't the best part of the movie. The final scene with Charlotte when Bob leaves his airport limo to find her in a crowded Tokyo street and exchange a real kiss seems a bit pushed. It’s emotionally necessary to give the movie a conventional tinge of sentiment, but is this gesture quite believable, or even possible, in that crowd and in that traffic? Coppola is such an ironist and a realist that we’re not conditioned by the movie to suspend disbelief as we would if Nora Ephron were at the helm. (It’s both pushed and too easy, that last kiss.)

Funnily – typical of Ms. Coppola’s style which is both unobtrusive and unexpected, Charlotte cries only at the beginning.

What would have been nice is if Bob had cried at the end.

Sofia Coppola already showed with The Virgin Suicides that she could work on a mature almost cult-like offbeat level. She maintains, but doesn’t go beyond that here. Lost in Translation deserves attention and praise for its originality, its restraint, and for Murray’s and Johansson's modulated performances. But it’s rather slight, and not as funny as some people think. Actually, it’s pretty sad. Suicide was more fun.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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