Two lonely Americans, adrift and sleepless in a Tokyo hotel, drift into an unlikely friendship that may or may not drift towards romance… This is an uneven, fragmentary little movie dominated by the central performances by Bill Murray (as Bob, a faded star of Hollywood action [?!] movies) and Scarlett Johansson, as philosophy-graduate (and Coppola-surrogate?) Charlotte. Both are very good: Murray, though hardly departing very far from his usual hangdog I-dont-give-much-of-a-shit territory, does especially well with the limited material he’s given. 
Coppola’s script is in general a frustratingly skimpy affair, one which makes some very immature jokes at the expense of the Japanese and their pronunciation of Rs and Ls – there aren’t any proper Japanese characters here as such, despite the prominent billing given to Fumihiro Hayashi (who presumably had more to do in an original cut). Apart from Bob and Charlotte, everyone else is little more than a caricature, including Charlotte’s dweeby-trendy fashion-photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), John’s airhead actress friend Kelly (Anna Faris), and a lounge-singer (Catherine Lambert) who’s stuck with an especially thankless role (but who, since she’s a real-life lounge-singer in this very Tokyo hotel, is probably glad of the publicity).
Coppola’s direction is also somewhat tentative and arbitrary (why begin with a shot of Johanssons backside?) – very much the kind of film, in fact, which the finding-her-feet Charlotte would have made. Coppola aims for the same kind of music-driven dreamy looseness of her so-so debut The Virgin Suicides: pleasant enough, if a little lacking in substance. That picture came and went with relatively little fanfare – Lost in Translation has somehow ended up one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, with four Oscar nominations. Murray’s is fully justified, which is more than can be said for the nods for Coppola’s script and direction (shamefully, she’s the first American woman to make the latter category). Most baffling of all, the Academy included the film in the Best Picture shortlist.
Then again, most of the Academy voters are actors, and Lost in Translation is very much an actors’ showcase – they also probably felt that they should nominate a relatively small indie alongside behemoths like Return of the King and Master and Commander. In addition, the cheap ($4m) film has also done well ($30m+) at the US box office – largely, one suspects, because of the fuzzy but ultimately quite touching relationship between Bob and Charlotte. Like the film itself, the relationship is offbeat and somehow rather beguiling even if it never quite manages to come into focus.

Neil Young
9th February, 2004
(seen 5th February : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
first seen 29th October, 2003 : click here for original review (rating after first viewing : 5/10)
USA 2003 : Sofia COPPOLA : 105 mins