Lost in Translation

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English, Japanese
Opens April 17 at Cinema Rise
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The dialogue of “Lost in Translation” never sizzles, never gets out of line, doesn’t really reveal the protagonists’ interior landscapes. It seems like most of the scenes are about the two of them sitting there, telling each other about how much they want to sleep. Bob and Charlotte spend an awful lot of time not saying very much. Even in one of the most crucial scenes when they swap life stories, the sentences trail off and then they’re . . . sleeping.

All this is very much in the Japanese cinematic tradition — and in this sense, “Lost in Translation” feels Japanese. It’s never about what a man and a woman say to each other, but the space they manage to create for themselves. (Kaori Shoji)

Bill Murray won a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, so it’s natural to call “Lost in Translation” a comedy, even if Sofia Coppola doesn’t betray an instinctive flair for comedy. The scene in which a Nordic Track machine spouts Japanese is funny; the one in which a call girl attempts English is not. Better to leave the funny business to the funny people. Murray gives his cynical hipster persona a rest, but embodies the ridiculousness of Bob Harris’ situation with painful precision.

Here is a guy receiving a few million dollars to sell whiskey by being himself — even though that “self” is a fiction. “Do you know Rat Pack?” says the Japanese photographer during a print-ad shoot, referring to the Sinatra-led band of Vegas swingers as a convenient illustration of what he wants. Grateful for the assistance — he’s an actor, after all — Harris does a bad Joey Bishop impersonation (or is it Dean Martin?). The scene is funny not because Harris is trying to be funny, but because the situation itself is so dumb and so true. (Philip Brasor)

My favorite scene: Bob attempts to chat with an elderly Japanese man in a hospital waiting area. He seems clueless to the fact that Bob is a celebrity and cannot speak a word of Japanese. “Nan-nen iru-n desu ka? (How many years have you been in Japan?)” he shouts, emphasizing each word as if Bob will finally get it, as two women fall into a giggle fit in the background. Minutes before, Bob had been feigning comprehension of the instructions given by the hospital receptionist. Here, though, he is humbled and can do nothing but try to parrot the old man. They seemingly communicate — just not in the same language.

My least favorite scene: At a sushi shop afterward, Bob tries to cheer up Charlotte by making a lame joke at the expense of the unsmiling, unknowing sushi chef. The scene might have worked if Charlotte hadn’t laughed or, better, if the chef had muttered a snappy retort in perfect English. Maybe Bob is supposed to be a bit of a jerk, but since he’s played by Bill Murray, we want to like him. (Mark Thompson)

Having launched her understated fashion brand Milkfed in Tokyo, with her own boutique (Heaven 27) in Daikanyama, Sofia obviously knows the way to a Japanese girl’s heart — through cheap pom-pom slippers! And hand-knitted mufflers! (Check out Charlotte’s style when she’s lounging around in her hotel room.) The fact is, Sofia knows real clothes (and by the way she deployed Scarlett Johansson’s backside, real bodies as well) and in her lens, no one wears anything that’s remotely movie star or even brand name. Only Sofia would know to dress Charlotte in a short duffle coat and cotton socks — the look can best be described with the Tokyo girl’s favorite fashion phrase: “dasa-kawaii (frumpy-cute).”

A favorite moment was when Bob and Charlotte go out for the first time and in a stab at coolness, he dons a camouflage T-shirt (this looked suspiciously like a Bathing Ape item). At which Charlotte chuckles and says, “You really are having a midlife crisis.” (Kaori Shoji)

The dialogue, when it isn’t obviously ad-libbed, is utilitarian at best. The plot development could have been story-boarded over coffee. And yet, in a year of so many book adaptations, Coppola received the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Her first feature, “The Virgin Suicides,” was based on a novel. What was striking about it as a movie was the re-creation, both physically and atmospherically, of 1970s suburban Michigan. Coppola proved she had talent for milieu, which may be why so many people find “Lost in Translation” affecting. It’s all milieu, but she didn’t have to re-create it.

In terms of writing and directing, “Lost in Translation” is average. In terms of location scouting, it’s sublime. That’s why the Park Hyatt, which begins on the 39th floor, was such an important choice. She gets a lot of emotional mileage out of people just staring out of windows. If she had chosen a hotel closer to the ground maybe she wouldn’t have won that Academy Award. (Philip Brasor)

A friend who often does interpreting for visiting foreigners was impressed by the TV commercial scene. The director, a frustrated auteur, is not satisfied with Harris’ on-camera demeanor. “Suntory whiskey is high-class, expensive,” he yells, and in abstract language tries to convey what he wants from the actor. The interpreter boils his extended rant down to “Please be more intense.” Harris is perplexed. “Is that all he said?” Yes and no. According to my friend this problem is a common one for interpreters, owing to the kind of inflated egos that Japanese men in the director’s position tend to possess. (She dealt mainly with reporters, who are similarly long-winded.)

People who don’t understand the unsubtitled Japanese can still understand from the director’s tone of voice and body language that he’s pretentious and self-important. Or maybe not. My friend’s fear is that non-Japanese will think the interpreter is lazy, when all she’s trying to do is keep things moving along. (Philip Brasor)

Coppola seems better at articulating things nonverbally. At an event last month to celebrate her promotional visit to Tokyo, she hid in the DJ booth, but connected with the crowd through a well-selected set. Like the ephemeral soundtrack of “The Virgin Suicides,” the music of “Lost in Translation” is overseen by Air drummer/producer Brian Reitzell and features more shoe-gazer pop, even original tracks from Kevin Shields, the reclusive genius behind My Bloody Valentine. But the soundtrack’s best moment comes when Bill Murray takes the mic, killing us softly with his rendition of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” He does it his way — slightly off-key but totally heartfelt. (Mark Thompson)

In taking up strange aspects of Japanese society, Coppola seems satisfied with pretty standard stuff, i.e., men reading erotic manga in the subways, the call-girl who shows up in Bob’s hotel room offering a “premium fantasy,” etc. (These get no commentary from Bob and Charlotte, but there is one moment of cringe when they ask each other why the Japanese like to “flip the L’s and R’s.”)

On the other hand, the director is democratic and paints her American characters with similarly broad strokes. For example, Charlotte’s husband seems on the verge of getting truly obnoxious, and it’s a relief when he makes an exit for “Fukey-oka.” And in the depiction of a ditzy Hollywood actress on a promotional visit, the caricature goes a bit over the top but Coppola’s point does comes across: People are strange, on both sides of the ocean. This sense is precisely what brings Bob and Charlotte together. They become each other’s refuge from the weirdness of the world. (Kaori Shoji)

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