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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #128: Lost in Translation

Being in a country where you don’t speak the language and most people don’t speak your language is a rather unique experience, which Sofia Coppola perfectly captured in her comedy/drama Lost in Translation (2003). Setting the movie in Japan greatly increases the feeling of isolation the two main characters feel, since at times Japanese culture almost feels like something from another world when compared to western culture. Then again with Donald Trump running for President of the United States this year Japan is starting to look pretty tame as compared to how the world was in 2003.

I have not had the chance to travel to Japan, but I spent a good chunk of my teenage years in South America where I had to slowly learn Spanish for everyday use. While watching Lost in Translation I could somewhat identify with the situation of Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an American adrift in Tokyo. The first time you are in a country with a different culture, language, and time zone, there is a lot of adjustment to be made. You need help asking for directions, you need to learn how to ask for food, and sometimes you are not even sure if what you ordered is what you thought it was. What you think are tomatoes might actually be extremely spicy peppers, so dictionaries are always a must.

Murray’s character in Coppola’s film is not in Japan indefinitely, but he still adrift both culturally and in life. A middle-aged actor, Bob Harris is being paid a vast sum of money to shoot a whiskey commercial. This is actually a very plausible plot, since there are plenty of actors such as Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Willis, and of course Nicolas Cage who have travelled to the land of the rising sun for that same reason. Just do a quick search on YouTube to find footage of Tommy Lee Jones shooting lasers out of his eyes for a coffee ad. It’s as weird as it sounds.

Bob however is not having a lot of fun with his shoot, no matter how much money he is making. He needs a translator to understand his director’s input, and he has the distinct feeling the translator is not telling him the whole story. He is not too eager to head back home, since his 25-year marriage and even his children are not bringing him much joy these days. The significant time difference between Japan and America keeps Bob awake at night, leading to an encounter with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) a fellow American experiencing similar problems.

Whereas Bob is well into his marriage and career, Charlotte is a college student unsure of what to do with her life, and recently married to John (Giovanni Ribisi) a photographer too busy to spend time with her while on assignment. Charlotte correctly diagnoses Bob is having a mid-life crisis, whereas Bob can tell she might end up in a similar situation one day and offers advise on marriage and children. When they are not discussing life, the universe, and everything the two decide to explore the city and Japanese culture, inevitably leading to a karaoke bar.

Someone once told me they thought not much happens in Lost in Translation, and that is fair up to a point. This is not Bill Murray chasing ghosts, and Johansson is not fighting robots while dressed in a leather suit. However anybody who has ever felt isolated or adrift in their lives will find a lot to identify with in Coppola’s story. This is also worth watching if only for another strong dramatic turn from Murray, who is portraying a flawed, charismatic, and lonely man adrift in the night.

As a woman in her 20s unsure of what the future holds for her, Johansson rises to Murray’s level and the two have great onscreen chemistry despite the obvious age difference. Then of course there is that final scene, where your first instinct is to raise the volume if you are watching the movie on TV because you think there is no way the audience wouldn’t be able to hear the parting words Bob whispers to Charlotte. It might be frustrating, but it was a wise choice on Coppola’s part since people have been speculating what those words are for the past 13 years.


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