While filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Neil Jordan have escaped to France to make labors of love, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) chose Japan. Two characters working through transitions in their lives while stuck in foreign environs rejoice in a quickly bonded friendship. A pleasantly simple story, matched with fine performances by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, topped off with stunning cinematography that allows the setting to mingle with those who inhabit it.
The recently wed Charlotte (Johansson) lazes around her hotel room, waiting for her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to return from another crazy day of shooting. She spends some of her days wandering into cultural parks and entertainment, but finds herself stifled by a lack of direction. Her path converges with Bob (Bill Murray), a famous actor from America who is stuck in filming commercials because the money is just too darn good to turn down. Both are experiencing an estrangement from their spouses and get caught in reflection of where they are headed, leading to a powerful camaraderie that seeks enjoyment and solace.
Beneath the soul-searching of the central duo is a sense of humor at life’s little troubles. They laugh at themselves, they laugh at others, and because they can do both, their roles are easy to relate to, whether or not you’ve been through a similar situation. Charlotte learns to appreciate the openness her youth can offer, while Bob is able to find that he wouldn’t return to those previous stages of his life if given the chance. Their dialogue remains surprisingly natural despite the philosophical principles that are being wrestled with.
Though it’s a credit to Coppola (who also penned the script) that she can effortlessly combine struggle with laughter, it is often too bent on making fun of how stupid Americans act overseas. The language barrier Bob experiences on set constantly feels fresh and funny, but the continual blonde actress joke (Anna Faris) gets old fast, slowing the emotional progression of Lost considerably. This may also have more to do with the talents of Bill Murray far exceeding those of Faris (big shock there), who can work any quirk with the right facial expression.
There is other fat besides the inclusion of Faris that could have been trimmed without losing the effervescent feeling of the story. The wonderfully energetic camera is not quite matched by the seemingly haphazard editing. The pacing of information of the key characters is organically well-structured, but scenes either extend further than needed, or cut away too quickly at a particularly engaging moment.
While Lost in Translation is flawed, it’s still a joy to watch. The friendly chemistry between Johansson and Murray builds with a rare subtlety and their adventures, both physical and mental, are truly moving without ending up heavy-handed. It’s also a great diversion, in the current realm of special effects blockbusters and the slew of horror films being released, to sit through a simple tale of two very different people having such a positive effect on one another.
But we found some great sushi!