Monday, May 14, 2012

A Romantic Comedy . . . Without The Romance . . . Or The Comedy: Lost In Translation

The Good: Moments of humor, Acting, Mood, Most of the character
The Bad: Elements of character, Utter lack of real plot, Oppressive mood.
The Basics: Two Americans in Tokyo find themselves alone with each other in a depressing, moody operatic film that bows out - quite cleverly - before the crescendo.

Anyone who has been devotedly reading my reviews (thank you, by the way), will know that I hated, completely hated, the film The Virgin Suicides. To this day, it gives me hives just thinking about that piece of garbage. Still, when I heard Sophia Coppola was at it again with the directing, I looked into it. Lost In Translation is the result of all she has learned between her 1999 flop and now (or 2003, rather). It's refreshing to see that some people learn from their mistakes.

Bob arrives in Tokyo quite alone to be reminded that he has missed his son's birthday. His unloving wife is one reminder of all the potentials he once had, but now has become stuck with. In Tokyo, Bob meets Charlotte, the young wife of a photographer who is in Japan on business. Bored alone, the two connect over a series of innocuous meetings until they find themselves constantly enjoying one another's company.

Basically, this is a movie built solidly on the principle that misery loves company. Bob and Charlotte are miserable, they get together, they share, things seem a little less dark for them. This is a movie built almost entirely on mood. And while I was not a big fan of the whimsy of Big Fish (reviewed here!), that lighthearted, childlike feeling Burton tries to evoke throughout the movie, Sophia Coppola's unrelenting mood of depression and sorrow spoke to me. This is probably not the idea movie for someone who is currently depressed, but it's a weird journey on the outside for those who have survived living with constant misery.

The reason to sit through this movie, to experience it, is that Coppola creates two likable characters for the journey. Despite the fact that not much happens in the movie, we await with eager anticipation the movement of these two character inexorably toward one another. So, unlike Magnolia (reviewed here!) where things are oppressive, but there is a lot happening, Lost In Translation focuses on the oppression and accents it through remarkably little actually occurring in terms of plot.

And the absence of a plot is pretty disturbing for the first hour of the movie. It may take a while for the viewer to stop asking "When is something going to happen?!" and simply accept that the journey is the important part. From my perspective, I enjoyed the erotic tension. That is to say that much of the emotion of the movie is built in baby steps of Charlotte and Bob coming closer and closer together. There is a lot of emotional tension tied up, waiting for their tenuous friendship to explode over into passion and maybe even love. I enjoyed that the emotions built and expanded into something more meaningful, never sinking into the most obvious potential plot.

That said, there is a point in the movie that something happens to Bob and I have no shame in saying that I think it was a cheap move to make his character slip away from his wife in the way he does. It was disappointing, especially when one considers the characterization of Bob. Like Kevin Spacey's protagonist in American Beauty (reviewed here!), Bob seems largely unfulfilled sexually and likely to . . . well, take matters into his own hands. When you see the movie, as you should, you're likely to pick up on that impression almost from the beginning.

Outside that element of the story, the two principle characters are great. Bob is a wonderful personification of adult ennui and he has genuine personality outside that. Bob comes across as a man of great dreams and aspirations who finds himself alone and upset by that. Similarly, Charlotte is presented as more than simply a cliche for young indecision. She is a vibrant young woman attempting to become expressive and to find her purpose.

The two protagonists are played adeptly by Scarlett Johannson and Bill Murray. Johannson does an amazing job of being more than a pretty face or a lip gloss model. She is quite convincing as a very genuine young woman seeking meaning. Her performance shines with nuance in her eyes and body language. The director wisely capitalizes on her looks, the small movements that come with looking away, often, to illustrate Johannson's abilities to emote.

And I thought Bill Murray couldn't provide a better performance than he did in Cradle Will Rock. Wow, I was wrong. Murray illustrates his strong dramatic presence by portraying Bob as something of a realist in a world that is all about appearances. Murray's comic timing comes into play with dry wit as opposed to the flamboyant volume of many of his past comic roles. The result is that Murray creates a very real-seeming character that is easy to empathize with. This is the opportunity he has been waiting for to explode with brilliance in voice and movement and he lives up to it quite well.

Lost In Translation is billed as a comedy, probably by the same nitwits who continue to put Brazil in the comedy section at Media Play. This is a moody, dramatic look at people struggling with how alone they are in the world, broken up for moments by lines of humor. It's not a laugh out loud, joking humor, but an experiment in wit and subtle reflection on a world where most people don't feel they fit. If that's something you're open to experiencing, Lost In Translation is definitely for you.

Upon further reflection, though, it turns out I'm not. I like outsider movies, but the more I reflect on Lost In Translation, the more disappointed I am in it. The oppressiveness of the tone is amplified by the lack of a plot and the characters were less memorable than I suspected they would be when I initially reviewed the movie.

Lost In Translation was unredeemably depressing and while Bill Murray proved he could act again, his character was inconsistent and dull. The movie poster pretty much says it all on this one.

For other works with Scarlett Johansson, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Avengers
Iron Man 2
He’s Just Not That Into You
The Perfect Score
The Girl With A Pearl Earring


For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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