Two Not-Very-Smart Americans Lost in Tokyo - by Susanne Lee

"Lost in Translation"Director: Sofia Coppola Producer: Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola Stars: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris MPAA Rating: R


Reviewed by Susanne Lee

Opening with a lingering ass shot and a pan of the Tokyo landscape, Lost In Translation feels like a student work, dreamy, earnest, naïve and derivative.  Much has been written about this film.  It's a highly praised Academy Award winner for what I hesitate to call its screenplay.  Asian Americans mounted a furious campaign to discourage the members of the Academy from voting for it as best picture.

Is director-screenwriter Coppola racist? Lost in Translation is a fluffy chick flick with pretentious trappings, a precious video diary, an exercise in shallow wallowing.  If it commits misdemeanors against Asians, it commits felonies against cinema.

The plot follows two simpleminded Americans stranded in Tokyo.  Bill Murray plays Bob, an actor there to shoot a lucrative Suntory whiskey ad, while Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, accompanies her photographer husband.  Early on, in a manner reminiscent of the scene early in father Francis' Apocalypse Now in which Brando's Colonel Kurtz is revealed to have attended Harvard, it is asserted that Johansson is a Yale graduate in philosophy.  Believable for Brando but not for Johannson; perhaps she could have attended Sarah Lawrence or Bennington for a semester before flunking out.

Our intrepid pair meet cute in a Tokyo hotel bar, where it is revealed that she's been married 25 months, he 25 years.  In a script lacking humor, wit or originality, this coincidence is what passes for meaning.  A dumb starlet appears at a press conference where her husband takes photos.  Since both the husband and the starlet are outlines colored in with pale colors, any implied attraction between these two and consequent discontent in the marriage fails to register.

When not unsuccessfully attempting to depict a troubled marriage and isolation in a foreign land, Coppola amuses herself by poking fun at the Japanese. Luckily for Coppola, she's easy to amuse.  Murray towers over an elevator full of Japanese.  He's tall, they're short, and that's hilarious. Murray sits in his room in a yukata and slippers.  They're little, too, to the director's ceaseless delight.  The hotel's complimentary razor?  It's tiny, too.

And guess what?  These diminutive folk speak some sort of strange tongue.  The director shooting Murray's commercial carries on in whirlwind Japanese, and his translator says five words of English.  Coppola's Japanese utter things like, "Lock & loll," "lat pack," "Loger Moore."  Though hardly as offensive as Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed landlord Mr. Yunioshi of Breakfast at Tiffany's, it is still unfunny and appallingly juvenile.

Coppola further exposes her immaturity by her inability to imagine women, which leads to an awful shrill sequence.  "Lip my stockings!" howls a hooker sent up to Murray's room, where she writhes on the floor and wails "help prease!" in some bizarre rape fantasy.  In another scene, topless Japanese women gyrate at a club as Johansson makes googoo eyes at Murray.  Having miniatured Japanese men, Coppola's now turns her wrong end of the telescope on Japanese women.

When not offering her take on Japanese culture, Coppola treats the audience to many standard-issue tourist sequences.  Murray plays golf in front of Mount Fuji.  Big mountain pretty!  Meanwhile, the vapid Johansson goes off on the subway.  Wow, say the lips that the poor actress cannot seem to close.  Look at the biiig map.  Get on the crowded subway.  It's crowded.  Crowded with little Japanese people.  Look, that little Japanese man is reading a dirty manga.  She's lost.  Look at the pretty temple.  Look, a wedding.  A made-up bride in a kimono.  When in doubt, show weird Japanese TV, show Tokyo's neon again, show Johansson's dull mug.  The entire movie goes on like this.

Our curious foreigner wanders, mute, into an ikebana class, and then, still mute, into a video arcade where she encounters a Japanese Elvis impersonator.  This finally causes a reaction: she flashes her insipid grin.  At the hospital after she hurts her toe, Murray gets to act out at the expense of the non-English speaking staff.  He sits next to a, guess what? little Japanese man, does wheelies with Johnsson in a wheelchair and in a gesture of profound affection, gives Johansson a fluffy doll.  How absolutely adorable!  Later, Johansson waves at Murray's Suntory ad as it passes on a city bus.  Cute with a capital K.

Coppola's preoccupation with dysfunctional technology seems stolen from Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle: in the hotel's 24 hour gym, the treadmill goes too fast; fax machines spit out messages, including one from Johannson's husband with a heart on it.  Not only Mon Oncle but every other film mentioned in this review is vastly superior to Lost in Translation; the mere mention of Lost in Translation in the same sentence with other films might seem to taint the originals.

Perhaps this is the real meaning of the title Lost in Translation:  a film in which every idea is poorly executed plagiarism, spliced in from better work:  insomnia and urban alienation are far more fruitfully explored by Gregg Araki and Jim Jarmusch; the na√îf in the foreign land was much better done in Funny Face (starring Audrey Hepburn, who, among her many superiorities to Johansson, possessed a mouth that could completely close).  In another wistful view of a foreign city, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, captures the romance of Vienna and his leads, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, express a sweet intensity that Coppola's actors are absolutely incapable of conveying.

Unable to create real characters, Coppola uses shorthand. Murray receives a series of faxes from his wife in the States.  Later, she sends him carpet swatches, and then, calls about daughter Zoe's ballet recital.

The actors suffer from a fatal lack of chemistry. Extended loving shots of Murray's sad sack dogface, working the same tired routine after all these years, and the blank Johansson are some poor excuse for emotion.  Is this supposed to be angst?  Despair?  What is the angst or despair all about?  Coppola's modus operandi seems be between the few ideas and bad jokes, pull out extreme close ups of the less-than-inspiring faces of her leads or long shots or yet another cityscape.

Tokyo functions as the director's main prop, but then Asian cities with their combination of neon, skyscrapers and vast crowds are inherently photogenic.  For an American audience with limited exposure to Asian films and cities, these visuals are an amazing revelation.  Christopher Doyle has captured Hong Kong, Taipei, and Buenos Aires for Wong Kar-wai much more spectacularly; Lost in Translation looks like Kmart Wong.

Looks like Wong, that is, but lacking Wong's droll scripts and improvisations, sounds nothing like his work.  Instead, from the Academy-awarding-winning screenplay of Lost in Translation, I submit:

"Cool pool."

"It's nice."


"You're too tall"

"You're too small."


"Why do they switch the Rs & Ls here?"

"They have to amuse themselves."


"Let's never come here again because it would never be this fun."


"It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids."


"That's nice" is, in fact, an oft-repeated line.  What screenwriters such as Wilder or Manckiewicz, might have been able to accomplish if they had recourse to this line; they might have written work that was, really nice.

At a party Johansson's been invited to, things go awry when a guy pulls out a toy gun.  It's yet another scene in Coppola's small world where the Japanese are either blabbering non-English speaking idiots or decorative hipsters.  Our couple heads to a karaoke bar for an endless sequence in which it is revealed that in such places, people sing popular songs.  Murray channels Bryan Ferry and in lieu of a personality, Johansson gets a prop, a pink wig with which to festoon herself as she sings Brass in Pocket.  The viewer is treated to her head on Murray's shoulder, wearing his oversized jacket.  Awww!  That's nice.

I have spoken to many intelligent women who absolutely love this trite film.  It works to them as a perfect romantic fantasy: stranded in an exotic foreign land with an older man with no possibility of sexual danger.  What a sad statement that makes about the inner life of American women, but I digress.

Murray carries Johansson to his room and watches La Dolce Vita on TV while she sleeps. Why make everyone--this film, the audience, poor dead innocent Fellini--suffer with this reference?  Neither the older man-younger woman liaison nor  the fact that Murray and Johansson don't fuck, are anything new.  In Jean Jacques Beneix's Diva, the leads are a young person and an older successful artist, but Beneix takes the scenario further, making the woman an older Black American opera singer and the young man a white postman.  Diva takes place in Paris with luscious cinematography and score.  And no, they don't fuck.

The theme has been explored in an Asian context as well.  In Clara Law's elegiac Autumn Moon, a teenaged Chinese girl and an older jaded Japanese tourist develop a friendship in Hong Kong, a city on edge, before it reverts to Chinese rule.  And they don't fuck.

Recently, Wong kar-wai's In the Mood for Love , a meditation on sexual tension and unconsummated love, featured a moody score and stunning visuals that put those in Lost in Translation to shame.

Lost In Translation is an emotionally bankrupt film in which about three silly jokes roll past over and over and over again.  The director apparently believes Tokyo would be a great place if there were no Japanese in it.

What passes for moody and atmospheric is contrived, ridden with artifice and it suffers from a tedium that seems eternal, not unlike being stuck in Narita for a ten-hour layover with two fools (or four, counting the director, who has enough fool for two). The pseudo-sophisticated attitude is insular and fundamentally ignorant.  Lost In Translation, with its air of faux hipness, appeals to mainstream audiences as a trendy breakthrough art film with an offbeat sensibility.  It is clearly derivative of Wong Kar-wai and Jean Luc Godard.  Coppola didn't learn much from them, so Lost In Translation looks like a poor MTV rip-off.  It's just a coy case of puppy love in an Asian capital with a good use of music and adequate cinematography.

Critics have already savaged Coppola as an actress in Godfather 3 and like her Johansson character (who we learn has tried writing and photography), Coppola, God bless her, keeps trying new careers.  I heard she once designed T-shirts. On the evidence of Lost in Translation, that seems an appropriate career choice.

As the film slogs to a close, Murray leaves the hotel, and Coppola can't help herself from repeating her favorite joke as his hosts wish him a "Good Fright."  Then Murray gets into a taxi, spots Johansson in the street, dashes out and whispers something in Johansson's ear that has remained one of the great mysteries in film history.  Until this review.  Yes, the mystery is now over.  I am in the position to reveal, what Murray tells Johansson:

"Rots o' Ruck."