Lost in Translation May 20, 2016
Bill Murray’s persona is certainly one of the most intriguing in film. He’s a comedic figure who doesn’t have the presence of a said “comedic figure” — he’s the drily funny stranger in the corner of the room who gradually becomes the center through a series of pointed, clever quips. He’s neither a Bob Hope nor a Robin Williams, terrific performers who sometimes stooped to the cliché of Overdoing It for sake of a laugh. Always the smartest person in the building (or at least appearing to be), he perpetually seems to be making fun of himself and everyone around him; everything can transform into parody so long as he’s part of the situation. In his best works, we’re as prone to guffawing at Murray’s understated schtick as we are to trying to figure him out.
Because his façade is a classic example of the idea that he just might be hiding behind his quick wit. He can get a smile out of anyone without trying, sure, but what drives him? What bothers him as he lay awake at night? What are his biggest regrets? It’s this sad-funny circle of three-dimensionality (laced with humor) which has driven me to become the long-term admirer that I am. Murray is, perhaps, the only comedic talent able to be seen as more than just a laugh machine. Punchlines come naturally, but more interesting are his neuroses.
Lost in Translation (2003), which features what I believe to be his greatest performance (following is his characterization in 2005’s Broken Flowers), is an epitomization of what I love about Murray — it breaks down his masquerade and makes him a man first, a cinematic jester second. It’s a lonely movie about lonely people, aching romanticism hovering in the air with comicality by its side. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, it’s as substantial as it is retrained, its impact lingering quietly and emotionally as the days pass by. So many films try to be everything at once, pushing us in the direction of an affirmed conclusion which leaves us with a definite impression. But Lost in Translation, elegiac and discerning, has more on its mind than conventionality.
Murray stars as Bob Harris, an aging actor whose once hot career has given way to spokesman status. Currently, he’s in Tokyo shooting commercials for Japanese whiskey he cares little about; the money is good, but enjoyment is next to nothing. He’d rather be at home with his wife and kids, though they don’t match in their yearning. Bob, despite his comedic timing and his still decently there fanbase, hates what his existence has become. It’s clear that he took his family and friends for granted when he had success. Now that he’s in the middle-of-the-road stage of his career and his personal life, apologies might have been better received years ago.
So while he’s not quite a stereotypical case of your average fifty-something facing a midlife crisis, Bob is unsure of where his life’s headed. All he knows is that he’s very much alone, that he wishes he could change his past, and that he wants nothing more than to get the hell of out Tokyo. But contracts and vast monetary benefit keep him there, holed up and angsty.
During one of his many lonesome nights drinking solo in his hotel’s bar, he captures the attention of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman in the city there to support her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a director, as he undergoes his latest project. Fresh out of college, Charlotte is intellectually gifted but unsure of what to do with herself. She’s beginning to notice that her spouse might not be her soulmate.
Inevitably, Bob and Charlotte see the fatigue in each other’s eyes and strike up a quick friendship. In another film, we might see a May-December romance. But their connection is platonic, loving, and brief — though their relationship is doomed to last only a week or so, the affinity is exactly what the other needs. It makes for the first time (in a long time) that either has felt important in the eyes of another.
The juxtaposition of Bob and Charlotte is well-defined and brilliantly portrayed in Lost in Translation; just as Bob’s trying to figure out his life, Charlotte is trying to find a purpose in hers, to get a sense of who she is as an adult. He’s trying to pick up the pieces and she’s trying to find the pieces, and their crossing of paths could not have come at a better time. Charlotte’s vulnerabilities, linked with Bob’s emotional wandering, are healing in their relation.
All derive from Coppola’s impeccable screenplay, a piece of immaculate writing as able to convey expansive loneliness as it is able to evoke welcome humor. Coppola, still a rising filmmaker with only 2000’s The Virgin Suicides under her belt, wrote the script with Murray (and only Murray) in mind; it’s often been said that the film would never have been made without him. But Bob Harris is a character only Murray could have played, and Bob Harris is a character only Coppola could have written. Attentive and thorough in her characterizations, Coppola defines individuals with a set of fixations and hang-ups as excruciating as our own. She’s among the finest writer/directors of her generation — she says much with the fuss of an overstatement.
And the performances of Murray and Johansson are comparatively top-notch; they find the sweet spot of that hard-to-reach phenomenon in which we cannot picture a certain character portrayed by anyone else. Bob and Charlotte are roles made for them, the former a bizarro world reflection of the actor, the latter a reminder that Johansson, though beautiful, is more than what her ethereal exterior represents. The attributes of the actors play into their characters remarkably, as Bob, who appears to not be so unlike Murray himself, convinces us that we’re seeing what Murray is like behind closed doors, and as Charlotte, who’s a recent college graduate, might seem to have it all (brains, beauty, marriage), but is miserably empty. The fact that Johansson is 18 but playing 25 speaks volumes in regards to her then-blossoming talent.
Support is great, too: Ribisi is well-cast as Charlotte’s unassumingly distant husband; Anna Faris, stopping by as a Cameron Diaz-esque actress who was an old friend of Charlotte’s betrothed, provides the film with some of its heartiest laughs.
But Lost in Translation is more than your typical comedy. It is, with a label I use more often than I realize, a wonderful drama which just so happens to be funny. It’s a modern-day Brief Encounter without the romantic angle, and there’s something magical about a friendship bearing the same sense of importance. Coppola has made a particularly humanistic piece, and Murray and Johansson give performances that will stand as being among the best of their careers. A