BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE #11

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)  Sophia Coppola  
a commentary by Tony McRae

Here’s the scene:  a once popular American film actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray), his career in decline, is making a whiskey commercial in Tokyo.  All he has to do is hold a glass of whiskey in his hand, turn slightly toward the camera and say how good the whiskey is.  After the first take the Japanese director who speaks no English goes on at length suggesting to Harris how his performance could be improved. Harris looks toward the woman interpreter and waits patiently.  Finally she approaches him and whispers in his ear:  use more energy. That’s it?  Murray seems surprised by the conciseness of the translation.  After the next take, the director is even more long-winded; alas, the interpreter remains her succinct self:  express more feeling.  The scene reminds me of the many foreign films I’ve seen over the years with lots of dialog rendered in a few English words at the bottom of the screen.  I always felt cheated—I must be missing something.   

What makes the scene so funny—and touching--for me is Murray’s reaction:  he doesn’t shake his head, doesn’t demand further explanation.  He’s thinking:  it’s only a whiskey commercial and, okay, they’re paying me two million dollars, so let the guy rant.  But Bob Harris is far from apathetic; his face betrays his surface insouciance.  It’s too early in the movie for me to know the problems he’s having, but whatever they are they won't evaporate with booze or sex or sightseeing.  The first time we hear his wife's resentful voice on the phone we sense at least in part the cause of his gloominess.  That plus his fading career.

At first glance we may think Murray’s character is sleepwalking through the movie’s first few scenes, but in truth he is trying his darndest to keep space for himself, do his job, then take the money and run.  He knows he’s being seduced--he should be doing a play somewhere.  The cocoon he establishes in these early scenes works, at least for him.  He is not interested in people.  In fact, he seems not to be interested in himself!   

But that changes when Harris, in the hotel elevator, espies Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), married and pretty and American.  She could be a college exchange student, except she seems so self assured--which, we soon find out, is a facade.  They drift together, two displaced and uncertain souls, and we figure—at least I did—that this old guy’s libido will soon kick in and they'll be in the sack before long.  But Sophia Coppola doesn’t work that way:  she's not interested in dramatic turning points.  Nothing really happens.  By that I mean there is no dramatic event that causes the characters to change what they are doing.  Harris does his commercial; Charlotte wanders the city; they meet and chat.  The drama is on Murray's and Johansson's faces, and it’s fascinating to watch.  Their talk is chitchat, banal, unaffected at first by their feelings.  The change, when it comes, is no surprise because Coppola--and her two stars--has patiently prepared us; she takes her time, lets the ambiance of the hotel and city envelop and couple Bob and Charlotte like old friends comfortable in each other's company. 

Murray’s performance is the best from an actor in years, on a par with—and this is the highest praise I can think of—the middle-aged Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde at their sensitive and comic best.  Though Scarlett Johansson isn’t the veteran Murray  is, she holds her own naturally.  The chemistry between the two is palpable, and wonderfully touching. 

It's inevitable that we wonder what will happen to this May-September relationship.  In the movie's final scene Harris whispers something in Charlotte's ear, and it makes her happy.  We don't know what he tells her, and we shouldn't.  We've come to feel for these people.  It's enough to see her smile.

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