Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Lost in Translation



USA 2003 : Sofia COPPOLA : 105 mins

Or should that be Rost in Tlansration? After all, this is how the films title would be pronounced by most of the people we see and hear on screen – the comedy-Japanese who so amuse and bemuse the main characters (in fact, the only proper characters) Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a pair of mismatched Americans drifting together in Tokyo. Several gags rely on the supposedly hilarious (hiralious?) inability of Japanese people to pronounce English words properly at a photo-shoot for a whisky advert, over-the-hill actor Bob is asked to pose like one of the Latpack, while later, reluctantly entertaining a prostitute, he’s asked to lip my stocking. Bob and Charlotte even muse out loud towards the end on this quaint linguistic point.

The whole film operates on the patronising aren’t foreigners funny level familiar from BBC comedy-show Adam and Joe Go Tokyo – the audience never gets much closer to the local culture than Charlotte, who we first see riding in a taxi through downtown, dreamily observing the neon jungle through her protective window-glass shield. There are some scenes where Charlotte and Bob interact with Tokyo residents, but these efforts are stymied by the fact that the pair speak about four words of Japanese between them and the film doesn’t bother translate the copious amounts of Japanese with which they are bombarded. At least Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill Vol. 1 let the audience in on what was being said.

The presentation of the Japanese seems immature rather than actively, maliciously racist or xenophobic. Writer-director Coppola apparently just doesn’t know any better: on the evidence of this film and her so-so debut The Virgin Suicides, its very tempting to note the words she places in Charlottes mouth, when she dismisses a certain section of her life as girl-goes-through-a-photography-phase. Lost In Translation shows that Coppola is still enduring her girl-goes-through-moviemaking-phase: a hostage-to-fortune line if ever there was one. Leaving aside the scripts inadequacies (that howlingly clich of a title should have been a warning-sign), the film is blandly directed at best, despite the best efforts of crack cinematographer Lance Acord.

Or perhaps it was Acord who decided to improve a striking shot of Murray golfing in front of Mount Fuji by inserting a clumsy filter? On the evidence of Acords work for Coppolas husband Spike Jonze on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, however, this seems unlikely. And what must Jonze make of Lost In Translation, in which Charlotte a directorial surrogate if ever there was one is stuck in an unsatisfactory marriage to scrawny, geeky-trendy photographer John (Giovanni Ribisi)? Who may or may not still carry a torch for his airheaded ex, American actress Kelly (amusing Anna Faris) both of them pure caricatures.

Then again, Lost In Translation really only has one subject, the relationship between Bob and Charlotte. This is a conspicuously chaste April-November set-up that’s much more a father-daughter scenario than anything romantic – Bob tellingly expresses guilt about having forgotten his childs birthday. Despite this, in order to inject some final-act drama Coppola has Charlotte suffer an implausible fit of jealousy when she finds Bob in bed with their hotel-lounges resident jazz-chanteuse (Catherine Lambert, stuck in a truly thankless role).

With all these flaws and reservations, its perhaps surprising that Lost In Translation is never less than watchable thanks almost entirely to the efforts of the cast: Johansson, who does her best to make a potentially annoying character sympathetic and, best of all, Murray, who gets too few lead roles of this kind for audiences to be especially choosy when they do come along. Bemused and melancholic, he mines every laugh possible out of the script and probably quite a few that werent written down at all in what amounts to a textbook verbal and physical comic performance. Oddly, however, the single sequence seized upon by most critics as Murrays highlight a karaoke rendering of Roxy Musics More Than This falls disappointingly flat. But its an appropriate selection: Murray, like Johansson, and the audience, really do deserve much more than this.

11th November, 2003 (seen 29th October : Odeon West End, London London Film Festival)

click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival

Click here to read an updated review after a second viewing.

by Neil Young