As scene on 12 Gauge
Lost In Translation (2003)  

Sofia Coppola: The Virgin Suicides (soundtrack by Air)

Moviemaking today divides into two main bodies of work: (1) the genre films that are so public a hermit couldn’t escape the omnipresent hype; and (2), a less observed film that leans heavily on the traits of other art forms, is strongly concerned with structure, and mightily taxes the brain with motivations and ideas well worth the dredging that it takes to find them. There are good films in both worlds, but they don’t feed each other in any framing-language-narrational way. Mike Snow never touches a Hollywood ticket and Coppola’s never heard of Fassbinder.

– Manny Farber, 1975

Sofia Coppola’s new film Lost In Translation has a lot going for it. It has Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and more quirky Japanese people than you can shake a Tokyo ball at. LIT offers American audiences a fresh and unparalleled look into modern Japanese culture. Where else can you hang with young Asian chicks in Cossack hats besides, um, Budweiser ads? Then there’s the not-young Asian chicks not in Cossack hats. I for one was fascinated to learn that Japanese prostitutes dress exactly the same as Japanese women execs, who are mainly used for reception lines and holding clipboards. Amazing! Of course Peter Greenaway’s Eight And A Half Women already broke this story, including the deal with loneliness, pre and post mid-life crisis, and especially the deal with pachinko. But that’s okay because Greenaway’s a complete nut job, and besides, he left out the Simon and Garfunkel-tinged hotel bars, positive karaoke, Japanese T.V. directors (oh, they have ’em), the So Johnny Carson of Japan (see Telemundo), busy intersections, oversections and tiny green cabs. At least Sofia Coppola still has her sanity. And that is something.

Wait—we could start over. Lost In Translation: It’s a decent film, and it doesn’t reek like Personal Velocity. Astute audiences will note the film takes place in modern day Tokyo (formerly Edo, established 16c). Cultural nuances well shown if at times with no clear purpose. Twenty seconds hopping on steps at the Daitoku-ji: four thousand dollars. Thirty seconds of flower arranging footage: six thousand dollars. Fifteen seconds at the Saiho-ji: two thousand dollars. Not having to use your brain while watching a nice little movie about nothing: priceless. I would like to simply accuse LIT of creeping Orientalism and be done with it. But the thing is Coppola truly has nothing against Japan. Her superficiality extends pleasantly to all she touches. The relationship between our little blonde girl and her photographer (was he even an actor?) husband was as rich and satisfying as—nothing, or at least not much. Maybe if Coppola had actually inserted the beginning of Contempt, instead of just copying it, we could have cared about her troubled marriage.

Or perhaps if Coppola didn’t see herself in young Scarlett Johansson, she would have cast a less dreamy, but more engaging actress. Hollywood seems to think Johansson is the thing next to butter, but I just don’t see it. I put her acting somewhere between Klonopin and trazadone—or maybe half an Ambien. On the other hand, Bill Murray is acting even when he’s not just like Al Pacino always tells the truth even when he lies. That’s because he’s old and has dark hair. Johansson is not old and has blonde hair. She has no scar. She barely even has an ass. So who cares about her pink underwear? Don’t get me wrong. Johansson is very pretty, but I can’t decide if I want to sleep with her or give her some energy bars. And then sleep with her.

As for the story itself, well, it really is quite phony, isn’t it? Of course it’s Coppola’s reaction to growing up and being hit on—or perhaps not being hit on enough—by her father’s Hollywood friends. Let’s not even mention the atrocious phone conversations between Bob and his stale stateside wife. If the goal was to show us why Bob would consider leaving his wife, shouldn’t it also have shown us why he might not? Instead, we’re given a cold caricature whom this man would never have married in the first place. Or maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to leave his family? Okay, fine. He still could have slept with Charlotte though—and her foot. But we’re obviously supposed to be heartwarmed that Bob wants to do the right thing. But who said not sleeping with Charlotte is the right thing? I did not say that. Or maybe it has nothing to do with any of that. Maybe he has ED? Or VD? Maybe that’s what he whispered in her ear that made her smile. “I was born, but...” The point is the whole thing just doesn’t add up. None of the characters had any inner struggle to explain their decisions or make us care about them as humans being or make us even think at all. Being half asleep from jet lag does not count as inner struggle.

You’re welcome to disagree, but the truth is it’s quite impossible to develop an internally consistent response to the film’s characters. For example, Bob is annoyed at the antics of the ‘Johnny Carson of Japan’ show, but he signed up for it—he went to Japan, for money—he placed himself in the situation like a reviewer who knowingly goes to see a dumb film and then whines about it. “What are you laughing at? They’re your clothes motherfucker!” Sure Bob’s clever and amusing, but he’s also a jerk. We cannot fully sympathize with him. But then this conflicts with the earlier scene where we wholly sympathize with him as he talks to his weenie of a wife? The same thing happens with Charlotte. One minute we’re supposed to sympathize with her (phone conversation with her disinterested friend, her neglecting husband, the world is conspiring to make her bored). The next minute she’s waxing sour about some blonde actress friend of hers and basically just being an all-around wet blanket. The net result is we stop giving a shit.

Stylistically, the film’s selling point is its serious jet lag melancholy and ennuic pacing. The restaurant scene after Bill’s indiscretion was slow and sweet like a Maggie Cheung Tony Leung longing contest. And it definitely captured the ‘morning after’ ‘what else is there to say?’ ‘Sunday homework’ feeling. Sunday homework—ugh. But all of this languidity and missed romance is just a shadow of Wong Kar-Wai and Jia Zhangke, who are both real directors.

So what about the humor? Murray is exactly as charming and witty as you thought he was, just like he’d be if I filmed him right now in his bathtub in Malibu with my camcorder. Whatever. It has little to do with Sofia Coppola’s film. There’s even a cameo by Not Cameron Diaz presumably to allow for some hot Hollywood satire. But if you’re going to have satire, please make it funny. Lost’s satire is unfortunately the fill-up-the-screen-waste-my-time variety—far from the maddening Being John Malkovich and nowhere near as punishing as the low blows of Ghost World. “We both have dogs. We both live in L.A.” Yes, very funny. Try watching Paris Hilton on Letterman for ten seconds.

Here’s an example of Coppola’s failure to actuate the signal. We’re supposed to think our girl is smart while Not Cameron Diaz is Charlie's Angels dumb because she’s going under the name Evelyn Waugh, who was actually a male author using a female pen name. But I actually thought that was clever of her. Either way, it just seemed like an excuse for Coppola to show off her mad trivia skillz. Here, Sofia and Co. have simply made an honest miscalculation. This sort of thing has cropped up before and it’s always been due to human error. I prescribe Spirited Away.

Or, for a real review of this film...

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.

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