Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation has been a frustrating little movie for those of us who have championed it. I saw this movie in the theater when it first came out and loved it. I recommended it to friends and family members, most of whom saw it on video. Their response was almost unanimous: it sucked, nothing happened, the two main characters were a couple of passive lumps who never did anything. First I checked the obvious alternatives. Either my friends and family had all seen the wrong movie or they had been replaced by alien pod people. How could such intelligent, rational people take such a passionate dislike to this little gem of a movie.
The only thing I can guess is that there is something about Lost in Translation that requires the big screen to fully experience. Neither of the two lead performances are broadly emotional, depending on quiet nuance instead. This is not a film about explosions but about two people in danger of imploding.
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is in Tokyo with her photographer husband (Gionvanni Ribisi), who leaves her alone in their hotel room while he goes on shooting assignments. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging movie star, in Tokyo to shoot a commercial for whiskey. His relationship with his family would be distant even if they were in the same room. Neither of these people have any friends or other connections in the giant city and both are lonely and bored out of their minds.
One night, they collide in the hotel bar and connect. In another story, they might head straight to bed for an R-rated bump and grind, but this is not another story. Instead, as Charlotte’s husband takes off on another multi-day assignment, leaving her to her own devices, they come up with something even more original than sex: friendship and experiences they would not have had if not for each other. Fleeing the hotel, they spend one night on the town, at a Karaoke bar and party’s thrown by people who might loosely be described as acquaintances.
Describing the plot of this film is pointless because there isn’t much of one. This isn’t a story where the heroes have a problem that needs to be solved by the end, except for the problem of sitting in a hotel room staring at the same four walls. From that point, this film is a walking tour of nighttime Tokyo, seen through the eyes of two fishes very far from water. No one falls in love, even if Charlotte is momentarily hurt by Bob’s one-night stand with another woman. I don’t think even she knows quite why it bothers her. There are also no great revelations that leave either character a changed person. They leave Tokyo pretty much the same people they were when they arrived, except that their time in the city was a lot more tolerable, thanks to meeting each other.