The story behind this story is almost as significant as the film itself and
it might shed light on how a romance between an older man and younger woman
came to be set in Tokyo, Japan. Whose sensibility is this? Hollywood has
had its eye on this person.
That's because she's Sofia Coppola, daughter of "Godfather" legend, Francis.
Would that connection provide the clout to get films of like kind made by his
little girl? Apparently not, judging by Ms. Coppola's limited output to
date. Her "Virgin Suicides" has met with some critical success with
particular praise being heard for the work of Kirsten Dunst and Josh
Hartnett. On the other hand, the criticism has mostly been about its
plaintive formlessness -- not the stamp of Coppola senior.
Now, with "Lost In Translation" on the record, we get a clearer picture of
what motivates Ms. Coppola's in her choice of subject and tendencies in story
telling. As star Bill Murray put it in a Q&A in Hollywood following a
screening of the film, what started out as a 4-page outline was later
developed into a 65 page script. 65 pages? Where ideal script length is
generally around 110 pages, this allows for much on-the-set improvisation in
acting and writing.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a famous actor on a career decline who has been
paid two million dollars for endorsing a whiskey brand in advertising spots
for the Japanese market. In a strained marriage of 10 years, it's almost a
needed escape when he comes to Tokyo and emotes for the camera, whiskey glass
in hand. Work done for the day, he retreats to his hotel where his circadian
rhythms disrupted by a punishing flight time deny him the sleep he craves.
Temporary insomnia sends him to the bar. In the elevator, he gets his first
glance at Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), an appealing young woman.
Charlotte is a post-graduate still searching for a career direction and
accompanying her husband of two years (Giovanni Ribisi) to his still
photography assignment in Tokyo. The job occupies his time and interest,
leaving Charlotte to her own devices. That alone time is spent aimlessly
staring out on the vibrant city from her hotel window, in the company of
friends in town, and at the hotel bar. And, after briefly encountering
Harris in a variety of situations, both of them begin to discover a mutual
interest as well as a special understanding.
With nothing but time on their hands and the complementary yearning for
communication with a cultural comrade, they buddy up for some Japanese night
life, a hilarious bit of Karaoke and increased knowledge of each other,
always at arm's length. But, though physical contact between them is
maintained as off bounds, the emotional bond deepens, even as the grip of it
In the hands of these two capable actors, the vacuum of verbal expression
and physical consummation actually heightens the exposure of what they're
wrestling with inside, holding the viewer locked into the drama of a
forbidden romance. But will the barriers to temptation collapse? You'll
have to go see this movie to get the answer to that one.
As though to answer the charge of her prior film being too weepy and loosely
structured, writer-director Coppola keeps the camera on her two players with
effective focus on the emergence of a taboo situation. If this is a clue to
the Coppola psyche and the film subjects to expect of her in the future, we
recommend she puts it together with as accomplished a crew, before and behind
Bill Murray has tackled something here for the first time. He's the romantic
lead while bringing to the part the humor of the stoic funny man that's his
stock in trade. The subtler dimension of the man was sensed by Coppola in
her patterning of the character for him from the inception, as she has
stated. What he accomplishes here is the expression of gut feeling through
the defensive strategy of masking it with the ready quip. He's an
understated crackup, and a man taking stock of his life while entering an
unfamiliar zone of emotion.
Scarlett Johansson ("The Horse Whisperer") brings an effective balance
between vulnerability and a plucky trust in her perceptions. Combined with
her considerable sensuality she's convincing as an object of affection
despite being taken for granted by a self-absorbed husband. She plays all
the chords of a woman with an emotional hole to fill, being forced to become
aware of it by a connection with someone unexpected who would probably not be
noticed in more familiar territory.
Under the musical supervision of Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine), the
wall-to-wall soundtrack features exclusive music from him and Air -- plus
classic tracks from the Jesus & Mary Chain, Death In Vegas, My Bloody
Valentine and Squarepusher. Lance Acord's naturally lighted cinematography
is an accurate portrait of a tourist's Tokyo, accomplished intrepidly under
constraining circumstances. He wisely opted for the superior imaging
presence of high speed film over digital video, the more common choice for
the low budgeteer.
With the right kind of talent, improvisation can become spontaneity, but it's
a technique frought with risk. The challenge for the filmmaker is to cover
enough of the unscripted moments to mold a coherent story without erratic
shifts, clips that go nowhere, and gaps in continuity. While "Lost In
Translation" is not guiltless in this regard, the basic story's delicate
threads are woven with aptly measured progression and an atmosphere conducive
to the chemistry.
It's not stuff for the video game set, and will likely be panned for its
irresolution, but its content should resonate for those who have "been
there." These may identify with the emotional dilemma the drama examines
from this Coppola's creative perspective. Her technique of trusting the
actors to find and deliver their moments scores big in telling her story and
overcoming its deficiencies.
~~ Jules Brenner