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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Lost in Translation: A Recap of Sorts

Lost in Translation: The Recap of sorts.

By Michael Pape

There are exactly 3 stars in the Sofia Copolla vehicle Lost in Translation – Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and Japan. Murray and Johansson are magnificent, but this movie would have been boring as heck had there not been a Japan acting all weird in the background. Seriously – what is the matter with the Japanese that they decided to put the lights of Las Vegas together with the gross commercialization of New York and compact it into about 1/3 the space? Is it because they’re on that stinking little island? If so, does that also explain why they’re so weird, as a people? What’s up with their television programs, anyway?

So many questions, zero answers -- at least in this movie. The country that brought us into WW II just sparkles in the background, providing a catalyst for the malaise that our 2 despairing spirits find themselves mired in. These are 2 people that are unhappy in a specific way – married to people with whom they once were totally in love, but now not so much. At least not in the way they once were. They feel like their respective mates don’t understand them, and so they’re lonely. Being in bizarro world just brings that to the forefront.

The movie begins with Scarlett’s butt, as she is lying on her bed during the day. This introduces her malaise, which we will see in full force later on in the film. It moves on to the opening shots – Bill Murray arriving in Japan, seeing the insanity[1], getting out of the cab and being greeting by an obsequious cadre of hotel and hospitality people, and settling in his room. He is an actor, you see – maybe the kind of actor Bill Murray is in real life. His name is Bob Morris[2], I think, and he’s in Japan to make 2 million dollars[3] for filming a commercial for a particular brand of whiskey. Bill Murray is perhaps the best dude in the world for a role like this – one that has him being put-upon by Japanese directors, photographers, and a language barrier. You can see his suffering and confusion as he half-butts his way through a TV commercial and a photo shoot. Like he’s trying to try, but hates it so much he can’t stand it. Bill Murray is good, because that’s a pretty nuanced thing to get across, that you’re trying to try. Keanu could never do it.

He also has 2 children, one of whom had a birthday that he forgets at the beginning of the movie. This cuts him down a few notches in my eyes, and really, the film is all-too-comfortable in general with him being an absentee father. Now, I realize this is supposed to be a movie grounded in reality, and that absentee fathers exist, and need their stories told, but, come on. That’s way more important than some malaise he finds himself in. In fact, I could attribute his malaise more to the fact that he never sees fit to see his kids than with anything related to his wife being an overbearing hag who bombards him with carpet samples.

But that’s really an unfair criticism, because the kids are never seen in the movie, and Bob Morris clearly has some love for them. This story is about him, anyway. We don’t find out what happens to the family at the end, so I can’t judge too harshly. Maybe it’s just a phase he’s going through. Plus, I don’t want to sound like Dr. Laura. So, moving on…

Scarlett plays a 2-years-married hot young girl who came to Japan with her husband, a photographer. You get the picture that the love was once hot between these two but now marriage has settled in on them and he’s not compromising or altering himself at all and she feels herself growing apart from him. She feels herself thinking she doesn’t understand him, and he not her either[4]. It’s an all around sucky situation, and she does a great job of conveying the following things: boredom, intelligence, mistrust, aimlessness, curiosity. The main problem is she’s unsure of what to make of her life, and being married to a guy who loves his career more than her and not having a career of her own is killing her. But that’s just my psychoanalysis of a fictional character, so take it or leave it.

The great thing about this movie is the 2 characters are so fully realized you think of them as actual people rather than actors in a movie – no small feat, especially for the in-2-movies-a-year-for-the-last-20-years Murray. Also fully realized is the Japanese background, and the interplay between the 3 gives the film its warmth and humor. Murray and Johansson are so natural because that’s the way they’ve always been as actors. Putting them in a movie together was a brilliant move. Neither one of them ever seem as if they’re grandstanding or “acting”. They’re just having a conversation. And when confronted with crazy crap, they react naturally.

Which brings up another point – this is a totally adult movie. These are real-seeming adults dealing with real issues, and even when it gets crazy, people react in adult ways. This is not in any way sensationalized. People shoot at them, and they run. Nobody is badly hurt, there’s no melodrama or crazy camera angles or editing tricks. It’s just filmed and presented, and Murray and Johansson walk through it.

<>So, Anna Faris gets there and meets Scarlett’s husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Anna’s a Hollywood starlet in town for some reason, and she wants to get together with him, and wants only him to do her photo shoots. You get 2 senses from her: a) there’s a history between her and Ribisi that Scarlett doesn’t know about; and, b) she’s a total idiot. B) is played up later in the movie, when she goes out with Scarlett and Ribisi and a Rap Producer, and Anna’s talking about her dad being anorexic. You can see the smile form across Scarlett’s lips as Anna goes on and on about how he was in some prison or something. The message: Hollywood starlets are dumb. Hey, I can’t disagree. Look at Cameron Diaz[5].

Murray and Scarlett are the 2 people in the hotel who have trouble sleeping. That is their first connection. They meet in the bar a couple of times, including one where she sends a drink over to him a la the 70’s. Do people still do that? Anyway, they clearly like each other a lot.

So, Murray and Scarlett get together, have natural and fun conversations, and eventually go out on the town together as Ribisi goes away on a photo shoot and Murray is intrigued by her and has nothing better to do.[6] They laugh, get shot at, sing karaoke, and do all sort of other Japan things. The night ends with Scarlett putting her head on his shoulder in the ugliest hallway in Japan, and him putting her in her bed for the night. It looks like he has trouble deciding if he wants to stay with her for the night, but decides to go back to his room. That’s outstanding. The sexual tension is there, but not as important as the emotional connection. Plus, they’re both married and clearly not cads[7]. You can tell this film was made by a woman. Any guy would make Bob Morris a letch that Scarlett reforms.

The end of the movie happens when Bob Morris has to leave. He says goodbye to Scarlett a couple of times, sweetly but not really knowing how to express what she means to him when a) he’ll probably never see her again; b) they both have marriages to get back to; and c) he doesn’t know how he feels. They opt to not do a showy goodbye, but you can tell they’re both in pain. Bill then gets shuttled to the airport, and sees the girl walking down the street as he stops at what I presume is a stop light. He tells the driver to stop and goes and flags her down. They hug and he whispers 2 things in her ear. We don’t know what they are. They kiss and she cries, and he leaves. End of movie.

I love this ending – it ends their relationship on a satisfying note, without them living happily-ever-after. The audience cares about them if it has a soul, and we get to see them express how much they have meant to each other. Sofia has done a good job here.

I’m sure people who see this movie will want to visit Japan, because it seems like a place to experience insanity. My generation likes that. They may also want to go find themselves a Scarlett or Bill to hang out with there. But most of the guys will sadly just want to sleep with you, and most of the girls will be dumb as dirt. This movie just happens to have 2 extraordinary characters that seem real

[1] And a picture of himself smoking on a billboard. Fun.

[2] As opposed to Robert Morris, the “Big Tobacco” conglomerate. Or the College. If you wanted to, you could view the movie as some sort of metaphor with Bill Murray starring as the tobacco companies and Scarlett as the “Truth” people you see on TV pointing out what we have known for 30 years – that smoking is bad for you.

[3] Hopefully not yen.

[4] That did make sense, go back and read it again.

[5] Or Scarlett herself, seen sporting a “Howard Dean for President” button at some function. I mean, the dude’s clearly insane. I really don’t want to think of Scarlett as dumb, though. I’ll cut her some slack because she’s 19.

[6] It’s great, because they clearly have a “kindred spirits” attraction from the get go that they both recognize, but it unfolds in a way that’s so natural and gradual and non-hollywood, it doesn’t seem forced at all.

[7] I forgot about the worst bit in the movie, where Bill Murray gets drunk post-relationship-with-Scarlett and wakes up with the hotel lounge singer in his room, implying that they slept together. Scarlett shows up and hears her and gets upset under the surface. I suppose it’s to show that she really was in love with him. Unnecessary and out of character, I say. Turned him into a cad for a short time.


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