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ISSUE 117 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/3/2003

Critic's Corner

By Molly Bayrd
Variety Editor

Friday, October 3, 2003

Fully clothed and barely touching, a middle-aged man and a porcelain-skinned young woman lie next to one another in a high-class Tokyo hotel room. As they stare up at the ceiling and quietly converse, the woman pauses and turns to her companion. “I’m stuck,” she says. After a few moments, she raises her voice once more. “I just don’t know who I am supposed to be.” Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed new film, “Lost in Translation,” explores the way in which a twist of fate and an unlikely companion can be all that one needs to find (or reclaim) his or her direction in life.

The film, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, focuses on Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), a young woman grappling with her uncertain future. The other key player is Charlotte’s newfound companion: timeworn actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray), whose career has become laughably obsolete. She is in Tokyo with her often-absent photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), while Harris is in town doing a pricey ad campaign for Japanese whiskey.

Amidst their mechanized oriental surroundings, where almost nothing seems personal or relatable, the unusual pair is able to forge a playfully intimate friendship. The wisecracking duo hop from party to party and bar to bar, all the while immersed in a state youthful vigor that neither one has experienced in quite some time.

With elements reminiscent of Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut, the brilliantly ethereal “The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation” is a lovely film. Its reverberating message seems to be that sometimes all anyone really needs is some genuine human contact.

Both characters are certainly in need of human touch. Bob’s wife assails him with a daily barrage of bitter faxes and phone calls, while Charlotte’s husband incessantly neglects her. Neither one is able to get any sleep; Bob watches TV while Charlotte listens to philosophical audio books about soul-searching. Both are compelled, nightly, to seek solace in their drinks at the hotel bar.

Johannson, with her delicate features and childlike facade, is the portrait of female vulnerability – Coppola’s signature cinematic character. Murray, with his token dry humor and subtle wit, puts on his most notable performance since his Oscar-worthy role in 1998’s “Rushmore.” His quirky facial expressions and constant struggle with the Japanese/American language barrier lay a strong comedic foundation for what is otherwise a slightly obscure film.

Coppola doesn’t waste time with unnecessary exposition or dialogue; instead, her script is terse and significant, and her story is one of substance and plausibility. The only aspects of the film that hinder its genius are the occasional slow moment and a few distracting subplots.

Though some of the cinematography seems abrupt – there are several unnecessary scenes – the overall composition of the film is highly alluring. The constant montages of Tokyo’s chaotic nightlife, juxtaposed with the sterile and colorless images of Charlotte’s hotel room, have a dazzling effect on viewers. The film is saturated with eye-popping and palpable imagery.

Where Coppola most succeeds with “Lost in Translation” is the relationship she establishes between the graying actor and his young female friend. Never is it taken to the level of a modern-day “Lolita” story, nor is it so sexually-repressed that the pair’s dynamic becomes one of a father and daughter. Had Coppola exploited the bond between her two central characters, the film wouldn’t have been nearly as sincere or affecting.

Inevitably, Charlotte and Bob must go their separate ways. Though their parting is one of bittersweet emotion, it is ultimately hopeful, and never becomes overly sweet or cliché.

Coppola has created a film with true, albeit unique, integrity. Though success seems inevitable for this clever woman (her dad is director Francis Ford Coppola), Coppola has managed to make a small masterpiece out of “Lost in Translation.”

“Lost in Translation” has both comedic and heartbreaking moments (Murray’s hilarious whiskey ads are paralleled with Johannson’s lonely interludes on her windowsill). This brilliant, though understated film, will not leave viewers disappointed.

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