Lost in Translation: Love Story à la Tokyo


Bill Murray’s struggles.

Not all age gaps are created equal. Yes, elderly media moguls and demagogic presidential candidates continue to astound, shock, and repulse with their undying vows to spouses over 20 years younger. Yet the romance of Lost in Translation between middle-aged Bob (Bill Murray) and newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) still charms 13 years after gracing the big screen. The ennui, companionship, and cultural alienation it captures remain painfully true and relevant. Without much dialogue or sentimentality, it hits home with just the simple, wordless beauty of two people being together.

The movie begins when Bob Harris, a cynical, witty actor well into the nostalgia phase of his career, lands in Tokyo to film a 15-second whiskey commercial. He’s getting $2 million for it, a fair amount of dough that’d have most people seeing green. To Bob’s jaded eyes, however, this stint in Japan feels like only one more boring, meandering weekend in a life that long ago lost its magic to annoying wives and meaningless jobs. Staying in the same hotel as he is Charlotte, a philosophy major who finds herself tagging along with her workhorse photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). Friendless, loveless, and jobless, she struggles to fill her days with perfunctory temple visits and “soul-finding” meditation sessions, but ends up spending most of her time staring out the window, utterly adrift in this city of 13.5 million. One sleepless night, these two lonely souls cross paths at the hotel bar.

This is the basic setup of the most basic of love stories, with slight tweaks to the setting and ages. But it overcomes this apparent banality to become one of the most emblematic of its genre, for a couple of reasons. Above all, it’s funny. Without ever getting overly blatant, the movie scores tons with the simple but oh-so-true ways it illustrates all the little difficulties of acculturation. You haven’t seen what “cultural miscommunication” means until you’ve watched Bob Harris draw a blank at his director gesticulating in rapid-fire Japanese, grimace as he tries to “lip” the stocking of a rather melodramatic prostitute, and silently lament the color of his skin in a crowd of old Japanese men.

Bill Murray is a low-key, deadpanning comedic genius. He improvises and speaks with a wry, effortless relish. You’ll be surprised to know he made most of the best stretches of dialogue up on the spot – he’s that natural. And he does even better whenever he just stays silent and allows his grunts and eye rolls to do the talking instead. One frown is all he needs to communicate the confusion and bothersome difficulties of fitting in to a new world. Watching him gives us this mixture of pity and empathy we didn’t think we had. He may be a world-famous movie star, but we humble moviegoers still know exactly what he’s going through, poor guy.

Actually, the entire movie is just like Murray: low-key. Most romances blossom out of outrageous plot twists or fast-paced repartee. Not here. Lost doesn’t force anything: Bob and Charlotte’s connection springs from a kind of “negative interaction,” through shared moments of silence, affectionate gestures, and knowing looks. It could be a recipe for extreme, artsy boredom, but their reservedness in fact turns out to be fantastically mesmerizing. This is one of the few 21st-century films that could have been just fine as a silent: the images of these two provide all the dialogue we need. Together, the two make the awkwardness, confusion and subtle chemistry behind their relationship shine through in every scene, right up to when Bob makes that infamous whisper in Charlotte’s ear. They have so much to teach us about the messy, fickle world of human relations.

It’s worth highlighting that Scarlett Johansson, back in 2003 far less well-known than Murray, pulls just as many punches as he does. Unlike Bob, Charlotte isn’t meant to be laughed at. She’s idealistic and itching for prime time. But like so many millennials, she’s still terribly unsure of her place in the world. She could easily come off as insecure and emotional overkill, the ho-hum college bum elders harangue and peers mock. Instead, Johansson delivers a remarkably mature performance that oozes with knowing warmth, tranquility, and vulnerability. Her mere presence seems to exude far more wisdom and worldliness than her youth would otherwise suggest. Like Murray, Johansson has completely mastered the subtleties necessary to make this underappreciated half of the romance hold weight.

Lost in Translation on the surface may seem unremarkable. But scene by scene, it sneaks up on you until you find yourself completely within its grasp. By the end, the sprawling, quasi-impersonal skyscrapers of Tokyo will come to feel like your home. You feel the same sadness Bob feels watching the city fade into the distance, the airplane back to the U.S. now an unwanted ticket away from this beautiful world. Love frequently gets twisted and tarnished these days, whether through excessive sex, divorce, or infidelity. But the world of Lost gives us a heartwarming reminder of why even the most callous and mistrustful among us still end up following those hormonal rushes like a bloodhound. Sartre’s hell is anything but.

Vital Stats:

Lost in Translation (2003)

Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

Running Time: 105 minutes

Rating: R

Produced by: Ross Katz, Sofia Coppola

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Image of Bill Murray in the elevator taken from here.