Kevin Lee's Lost In Translation Review:
As was the case with AMERICAN SPLENDOR and its most worthy project of proving that "ordinary life is complex stuff", here we have a film whose premise I have every reason to embrace, but am left somewhat let down. This time the laudatory topic is the experience of foreign culture, in moods both enlivening and alienating—moods are what Ms. Coppola seems to excel at, equipped with a hummingly hip soundtrack and all the pulsating neon Tokyo has to offer. As with AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the editing keeps things going at a brisk clip while making mincemeat of the viewer's concrete sense of time, place and human experience—we seem to be getting a stuttered highlight reel of cool touristy scenes and sensations, often successfully distracting the viewer from realizing that they're not getting the goods. Somehow it doesn't add up, unless one is content with Antonionian cliches about empty existence adrift abroad amist the charming silliness of the Japanese (cliches that may very well ring true on a surface level, which is pretty much where this movie mostly resides—the film's incuriousness about foreign culture is what's most frustrating about it, and probably what will make it a big hit among American viewers eager to guffaw at another culture after MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING). It's certainly watchable and enjoyable, especially when such eminently likeable actors as Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are at the foreground of the often funny and charming proceedings, even though the characters they have to work with are flimisily drawn, saddled with flimsy domestic problems with flimsy unappreciative spouses. Giovanni Ribisi plays Johannson's unattentive videographer husband in such a bizarrely mannered way that I wondered if he was doing an unflattering impression of Coppola's real life husband, director Spike Jonze—which lends the film an enriching autobiographical subtext, which was about as enriching as it got for me.
As a bonus point of comparison, here's my review of Coppola's previous feature THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. In both films I feel that she has a strong sense of film texture and mood, but in both films I get the sense that she basically doesn't know what she really wants to say, or how to dig deeper into her subject than surface-level observation, and can only provide poster art imagery to conceal her uncertainty.
[Before his death, Lee later would write]
Yesterday as I reflected on our conversation and this movie a bit more, I realized what one major problem of the movie is: Bill Murray. Sure he's been getting praised widely for his performance, but it's just him being him, performing in a narrow capacity which is as you said, reinforcing stereotypes for the reassurance of N. American audiences, serving as a tour guide if you will. Not once does Coppola take him out of his comfort zone, instead she decides to work around him, trying to re-package his smug anomie as spiritual desolation (biggest examples would be his unbelievably bland rendition of "More than This" which Coppola tries to pass as a moment of subtextual connection between him and Johansson, and his ponderous conversations with his wife, taken straight from the film school screenwriting textbook, chapter 11, "How to write marital discord"). I find no poignancy in this so-called "REAL-ization", it's an obvious, self-satisfied and unrevelatory reality that I personally work against. Ideologically speaking, it's as much of a useless dead end as the fetishizing of suburban feminine isolation in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES.