Lost in Translation (2003)
Written & directed by Sofia Coppola

Melancholy and bittersweet, Lost in Translation is like spending an afternoon looking at old photos. You laugh, you think, you sigh, you might even get a little lump in your throat, you might even feel really sad, or really okay.

It's a quiet, contemplative film that's heavy on character and light on plot. Yet it maintains a soft touch, plucking the old heartstrings without veering into melodrama.

The characters, played with sincerity and wry depth by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, are way too dignified for melodrama. Murray is Bob (for some reason the name Bob just fits him in any role), a fading American star trapped in Tokyo while shooting a lame commercial. Johansson is Charlotte, an aimless girl at Bob's hotel who's stuck there while her photographer husband follows some rock and roll band around Japan.

Charlotte is too improbably cute and sexy for saggy old Bob, but they connect because they're both lost and lonely in exactly the same way. Charlotte feels abandoned and confused by her hipster, workaholic husband; Bob feels beaten by a flagging career and distanced from his callous wife.

We all know that heartsick feeling, the sense of being left behind while everyone else has all the real fun, or the person we long for simply isn't interested anymore. Lost in Translation gives its characters space to connect in the midst of that feeling in the way you wish you could when that feeling comes up.

But it's not all gloomy. Bob and Charlotte also share an equally third-person sense of their own absurdity, and it's actually this that brings them together at first. The film's "Advanced Theory of Comedy" sensibility is the glue that holds the film together, and makes the characters far more real than if they just sat around moping all the time.

Equal to the humor is a thrilling sense of discovery, as Charlotte and Bob share a unique experience of a foreign world, laughing at it and themselves. It gives us a strong sense of Japan in all its bizarre futuristic-ness, without resorting to easy comedic potshots, like how the Emperor bowed his head once in an undignified fashion, then had to stab himself to death to restore his honor. Oh, that was the day!

Though the more visually interesting sequences take place when Charlotte and Bob go party hopping together, the best scenes are the quiet ones, in which they reveal themselves to each other. Deeply personal stuff, like you're witnessing an actual conversation.

Because both are married, but clearly attracted to each other, the question of infidelity looms large. Will they or won't they start fucking? It seems imminent in every scene, and I won't tell you whether or not it happens, only that the characters fornicate wildly and explicitly for about half the movie (and definitively answers the burning question of whether Murray's ass is as pockmarked and droopy as his face … yes!).

Johansson is a true find – absolutely luscious but very honest and intelligent. Murray ascends the peak of a slow rise to being one of the best, most interesting, and unusual character actors around. Their semi-romance is impossible, but totally believable.

Coppola's style is simple, unobtrusive, and thoughtfully visual – she's not just firing off shots like any other sloppy indie director; she's composing them, to great effect. It's really a shame she's still making headlines on a daily basis as the girl who ruined The Godfather Part III (not true, incidentally). Don't you wish they'd stop mentioning that, and defame someone who actually deserves it, like Morgan Freeman?

Bad press aside, she's an excellent director, razor sharp in her ability to isolate moments. A few scenes drag a little, but they're all in service of setting a very specific mood. And the ending is surprisingly suspenseful, and absolutely right on the money. The family legacy now in good hands, Francis Ford Coppola can finally slow down and focus on what he does best: stomping wine grapes with his giant deformed feet.

Review by Crimedog