"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, May 24, 2013

Lost in Translation

In 1999, Sofia Coppola made her feature film directorial debut with the spellbinding adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides. The film was a modest hit and heralded the young director as an emerging talent. Her follow-up was a much more personal project, written while she was going through a rough spot in her marriage and inspired by time she had spent in Japan trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She poured out her feelings of loneliness and confusion and the result was Lost in Translation (2003), an independent film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two lonely people who meet in a posh Tokyo hotel and bond over insomnia and absent spouses. Coppola’s film is a fascinating fusion of the chatty meet-cute between two people in a foreign country from Before Sunrise (1995) with the stylish existential ennui of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). It was a surprise hit, striking a chord with many who identified with the romantic longing that developed between the two main characters. Lost in Translation received numerous awards and critical praise while also establishing Coppola as a major talent.

With the first appearance of Bob Harris (Bill Murray), Coppola conveys that disorienting feeling of arriving in a strange place while being jetlagged. In this case, it is the neon-drenched urban sprawl that is Tokyo. He’s making a whiskey commercial instead of being at home where his wife is redecorating his study. Bob is also missing his son’s birthday and doesn’t seem all that upset about it; or rather he’s resigned himself to it. One gets the feeling that he’d rather be thousands of miles away than with his family. He’s an aging action movie star who has probably spent most of his time on movie sets.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is staying at the same hotel with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). Much like Bob, she can’t sleep and stays behind in the hotel while he runs off on photo shoots with a band. We get some insight into how she’s feeling when the young woman calls a friend back in the United States. They start with the usual idle chit-chat, but pretty soon she’s choking back tears and blurts out, “I don’t know who I married,” before quickly ending the conversation so she can cry. It is an incredibly vulnerable moment that Scarlett Johansson conveys so well. All the feelings that have been bubbling under the surface finally come out. We’re never quite sure the source of marital strife between her and John, but it is probably getting married too young and that he is always busy while she follows him from job to job.

Bob bravely soldiers on through the commercial, but it isn’t made easy by his translator who is not telling him exactly what the director wants. Coppola doesn’t use any subtitles during this scene so that we are as bewildered and frustrated as Bob. Like Charlotte, he is unhappy; tired of pimping whisky and is eager to leave the country as soon as possible. That night, he takes refuge in the hotel bar where the house band (an ex-pat. group rather amusingly named Sausalito) performs a bad cover of “Scarborough Fair,” much to his and Charlotte’s bemusement, who is there with John. She buys Bob a drink and they exchange a nod of acknowledgement from across the room, but don’t actually meet. This is the beginning of relationship that develops between these two lonely people who feel lost in Japan and find solace in each other’s company.

As the film progresses, we get additional insight into the Charlotte and John’s relationship. Her feelings of estrangement are only reinforced when she and John run into Kelly (Anna Faris), a popular American actress in town to promote her latest movie (her press conference is a hoot as she spouts all kinds of cliché celebrities dish out during these kinds of junkets). John and Kelly engage in mindless banter (“Oh my god, I have worst B.O. right now,” she says at one point), much to Charlotte’s bemusement and thinly-veiled contempt. She has just graduated from college last spring and isn’t sure what she wants to do.

In his own dry way, Bob has no illusions about his lot in life as he tells Charlotte that is trip to Japan is basically, “taking a break from my wife, forgetting my son’s birthday, and getting paid $2 million for endorsing a whiskey when I could be doing a play somewhere.” Bill Murray delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance that expands on the sad sack businessman he played in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Much of the role in Lost in Translation calls for his trademark charm and dry sarcasm, but it also requires him to dig deeper the more time Bob spends with Charlotte, allowing her past his façade. In doing so, Bob lets us in as well and we sympathize with the actor because we get to know him as he reveals personal details to her.

Towards the end of the film, Bob’s relationship with his wife gets more fractured as she tells him how their kids miss him, “but they’re getting used to you not being here. Do I need to worry about you, Bob?” to which he replies, “Only if you want to.” This is quite possibly the most heartbreaking line in the film as one assumes that Bob is probably headed for a divorce once he returns home. His self-destructive habits surface and we get some insight into why he and his wife are so estranged. This also affects his friendship with Charlotte and the temporary spell that was cast over them has been lifted and reality rears its ugly head.

Interspersed throughout Lost in Translation are little visual interludes, like a nice shot of Charlotte sitting on the windowsill of her hotel room with the city surrounding her in the background, that suggest solitude. There is also a montage of sights and sounds when she leaves the hotel to experience Japanese culture, but finds navigating public transportation a bit disorienting and overwhelming, which Coppola conveys through hand-held camerawork that puts us right in the thick of the city’s hustle and bustle. We see Japanese culture through Charlotte’s eyes and Coppola does a nice job with these snapshots, gradually immersing us in this world so that we identify even more with Bob and Charlotte.

The centerpiece of Lost in Translation is when Bob and Charlotte go out for a night on the town and meet a few of her friends. This sequence not only allows us to see more of Japanese culture, but it also gives Murray a chance to riff on the situations and people Bob and Charlotte encounter. Coppola immerses us fully in the sights and sounds of the city, like the nightclub that is decorated with huge white weather balloons that allow images to be projected on them.

If, early on, Coppola seemed to be falling back on Japanese stereotypes of their people and culture (most notably the prostitute who wants Bob to “rip her stockings,” which is particularly cartoonish and awkward, temporarily breaking the hypnotic, dreamy spell that Coppola casts), it is here she goes deeper and we see that Charlotte’s Japanese friends are just like any other twentysomethings. There are all kinds of nice touches, like the conversation Bob carries on with a young Japanese man in French, or the playful image of Bob, Charlotte and their friends running through the streets while someone shoots at them with a BB gun. The night culminates in the best moment where they all hangout at someone’s apartment and end up singing karaoke. Charlotte (wearing an adorable pink wig) serenades Bob when she sings a cover of “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders while Bob sings “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” before working his way through a surprisingly moving rendition of “More Than This” by Roxy Music.

It is this scene where Bob and Charlotte forget their troubles and lose themselves in the moment. We see them smile, laugh and have a good time. The looks they exchange during this scene suggest a growing attraction between them. It is rather telling that she is able to sleep for the first time since she arrived in Japan after the special night they had together. He is even able to doze off in the taxi ride back to the hotel. What I find interesting is how their second night out is in sharp contrast to the first one. Charlotte meets Bob in a cavernous nightclub populated by unattractive-looking topless dancers gyrating to “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches. They don’t stay long, head back to the hotel where they stop briefly at the bar, but after spotting Kelly singing “Nobody Does It Better” horribly off-key they call it a night. Only insomnia keeps them both awake and eventually she hangs out in his room. They talk deep into the night and Charlotte eventually confesses to Bob that she’s “stuck” in her life and asks him, “Does it get any easier?” to which he replies, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

Charlotte doesn’t know what she wants to do. She tells him that she tried writing and photography, but was unhappy with both. Charlotte asks Bob about marriage and if it gets any easier to which he replies, “That’s hard,” and speaks wistfully about how he and his wife used to have fun, but everything got complicated once they had kids. It’s a wonderful scene where we see these characters at their most vulnerable. Murray drops all his shtick and conveys an honesty that is surprising. What is so magical about it is how these two characters are able to coax all of this personal stuff out of each other. Once they are removed from all the noise and chaos of the world around them are they able to speak honestly to each other and let down their guard. By this point, we’ve grown to care about them and have become invested in their relationship.

Lost in Translation came from a very personal place, so much so that Sofia Coppola was worried that very few people would be able to relate to it. The film was inspired by the time she spent wandering around Tokyo after graduating from college. A friend of hers was doing a fashion show in Japan and asked for help producing it. Once there, she met Fumihiro Hayashi a.k.a. Charlie Brown (who plays himself in the film), who ran a magazine and hired her to take photographs. She spent a lot of time driving around in her friend’s car, listening to music and taking in the sights. “Tokyo is just such an exciting city – totally visually interesting, crazy and overwhelming.” She also wanted to capture the feeling of being jetlagged in a strange city: “I’ve had my share of jet-lagged moments. Being in a hotel, and jet-lagged, kind of distorts everything. Even little things that are no big deal feel epic when you’re in that mood. Your emotions are exaggerated, it’s hard to find your way around, it’s lonely.”

Coppola started off writing different little impressions she had of her time in Tokyo. From that, she wrote a bunch of short stories and collected pictures for the visuals. She then used that as the basis for her screenplay. When writing it, Coppola based the character of Charlotte on herself when she was younger and faced the dilemma of “What am I gonna do?” She was also trying to figure out her marriage to then-husband Spike Jonze, who, at the time, was a very in-demand music video director and filmmaker. She said in an interview, “My friends said, ‘Finish the script and you’ll know what to do.’ I think I had doubts, but I didn’t listen to them because I was young.”

The character of Bob Harris was written with Bill Murray in mind and came out of her imaging what he would be like in Tokyo. She said, “He has something that’s really sincere and heartfelt, but really funny and at the same time … tragic.” She was a fan of his movies and always wanted to work with him. Several moments in the film came from things she had observed in real life, like the hotel bar band covering “Scarborough Fair,” and seeing her friend Fumihiro Hayashi performing a karaoke rendition of “God Save the Queen.” After seeing her friend in action, she realized, “I have to put this in a movie.” She also wanted to specifically set it at the Park Hyatt hotel because she had stayed there during her press tour for The Virgin Suicides and was familiar with it. Coppola spent six months writing the script and during that time she got stuck after the first 20 pages and went back to Tokyo to remember the parts of the city she liked.

To help out with the music for the film, Coppola enlisted the services of Brian Reitzell, veteran member of the Los Angeles band Redd Kross and who had worked with her on The Virgin Suicides. Coppola told him the kind of mood she wanted to convey and, having spent time in Japan as well, he understood what she wanted. Per her request, Reitzell compiled three mixes, homemade CDs that contained ambient tracks with artists as varied as Brian Eno and The Jesus and Mary Chain. She listened to these mixes while writing the script and then played them while scouting locations. When it came to score the film, Reitzell licensed several tracks from his mixes and also enlisted the help of My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields to help compose some original music. Reitzell said, “I knew he could capture that droning, swaying, beautiful kind of feeling that we wanted.”

Coppola saw Scarlett Johansson in Manny & Lo (1996) and thought she was “a cute girl with that husky voice.” After a brief lunch meeting in a Manhattan diner Coppola cast the young actress in her film. The director said, “She can convey an emotion without saying very much at all.” With Murray, Coppola spent eight months tracking down and trying to convince the notoriously elusive comedian to star in her film by sending him letters, leaving voicemail messages and asking mutual friends, like filmmaker Wes Anderson, to put in a good word. All of this hustling paid off as Murray finally agreed to do the film. However, the actor had his doubts: “The whole thing felt slight, which was a little troubling,” but she was persistent and convinced him that this was a passion project for her.

Coppola did very little rehearsing before filming; just once with Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi so that they could convincingly play a married couple. Leading up to principal photography, Coppola was still unsure if Murray was actually going to show up, but a week before it was to start he arrived in Japan, much to her relief. The shoot lasted 27 days in Tokyo on a $4 million budget with the cast and crew staying in the Tokyo Hyatt where much of the film was set. Johansson met Murray in Tokyo and the next day they started filming so the chemistry that develops between their characters mirrored the actors in real life. With very little money and shooting permits, Coppola and her small crew shot a lot of the film guerrilla style, utilizing hand-held camerawork on the streets and sneaking shots on public transportation.

Lost in Translation received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Bill Murray has never been better. He doesn’t play ‘Bill Murray’ or any other conventional idea of a movie star, but invents Bob Harris from the inside out, as a man both happy and sad with his life – stuck, but resigned to being stuck.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Ms. Coppola has shown an interest in emotional way stations. Her characters are caught between past and future – lost in translation. Perhaps her films are a kind of ongoing metaphorical autobiography … There’s a lot up there on the screen, plenty to get lost in.” Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Melancholy and longing have rarely looked so attractive – even desirable – nor has a movie with opportunities for ‘Lolita’-hood been turned so subtle, wise and often funny a study of chance encounter.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “Of course, Mr. Murray gets all the laughs with his exquisite timing and wry delivery, but Ms. Johansson makes an eloquent and charismatic listener; it’s in her alert and intelligent responses to Bob’s malaise that his passions toward her are ignited.”

USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Coppola’s second feature offers quiet humor in lieu of the bludgeoning direct assaults most comedies these days inflict.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Sofia Coppola has a witty touch with dialogue that sounds improvised yet reveals, glancingly her characters’ dislocation. She’s a real mood weaver, with a gift for goosing placid actors … and mining a comic’s deadpan depths.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Coppola evokes the emotional intensity of a one-night stand far from home—but what she really gets is the magic of movies … By the cold light of day it’s difficult to believe that, as individuated as the performances are, this sad middle-aged man and that restless young wife could ever feel so deeply for each other but it’s shivery to think so.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “The film itself – tart and sweet, unmistakably funny and exceptionally well observed – marks the arrival of 32-year-old writer-director Sofia Coppola as a mature talent with a distinctive sensibility and the means to express it.”

Much like many of the protagonists in Wong Kar-Wai’s films, Bob and Charlotte connect for a brief moment in time. It may be fleeting, but that does not diminish its significance. They were there for each other when they needed human contact the most, someone to connect with at a low point in their respective lives when they felt alone and adrift in life. We’ve all felt this way at some point in our lives, which makes Lost in Translation very relatable. There is a yearning, not just by the characters, but we are meant to feel it too because we want to see Bob and Charlotte together despite their marriages to other people. Coppola sums up this wistful feeling of unrequited love best in the final scene that is scored to “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Bob hugs Charlotte and whispers something unintelligible in her ear when the opening drumbeat of the song kicks in. It is a sublime moment that is rich with emotion because we’ve been on a journey with these characters and are invested in them. Bob and Charlotte head back to their respective lives, much like the main characters at the end of Before Sunrise, with the knowledge that their lives have been enriched by the brief time they spent together. Coppola ends on a series of shots of the city, but they look different because of the journey we’ve been on with these characters. We now see things in a different way.


Betts, Kate. “Sofia’s Choice.” Time. September 15, 2003.

Diaconescu, Sorina. “An Upstart, Casual But Confident.” The Times. September 7, 2003.

Galloway, Steve. “Sofia Coppola: The Trials, Tears and Talent.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 8, 2013.

Hirschberg, Lynn. “The Coppola Smart Mob.” The New York Times. August 31, 2003.

Hundley, Jessica. “An Invisible Role.” The Times. September 11, 2003.

Mitchell, Wendy. “Sofia Coppola Talks about Lost in Translation.” indieWIRE. December 14, 2009.

Thompson, Anne. “Tokyo Story.” Filmmaker. Fall 2003.

Topel, Fred. “Sofia Coppola on Lost in Translation.” Screenwriter’s Monthly. September 23, 2003.

Vernon, Polly. “Scarlett Fever.” The Observer. December 27, 2003.


  1. Nice read, like enveloping oneself in the movie all over again (in fact, now I want to take it off the shelf and watch it tonight). I like that you focus on the development of the story and romance; I feel that in the celebration of mood (and this is definitely a mood piece) the skill with which the narrative unfolds - contra those who think "it has no story" - is subtly impressive.

  2. For me, this is the best film ever made. I was stunned by what I saw when it first came out that I saw it 2 more times in the theaters. It's really nothing like it and everything I knew about film before changed after that.

  3. This is also known as the movie I feel in love with Scarlett Johansen ha, ha, she looks great on this movie, I actually saw this movie three times in the theater, it just evokes a "feeling" a certain I dont know what, I just loved that about it. The visuals and the music, plus the mellow vibe of two people just enjoying each others company grabbed me. Agree with you, we take a journey with these guys, the ending of the film is ethereal somehow...I always wanted to know what he whispered in her ear, but I guess its cool not knowing too.

  4. Joel Bocko:

    Thanks! Your own review of this film partially inspired me to write this one as you really nailed what makes it work so well. And yeah, I agree that the film has a definite story, which tends to get forgotten because the mood and atmosphere are so strong.


    Nice! Yeah, I love this film so much. I never get tired of it.

    Francisco Gonzalez:

    Yeah, Johansson definitely looks great in this film and shows some decent acting chops as well. I love the mellow vibe of this film as well. It is one of those movies I like putting on late at night and just zone out to.

  5. Gosh J.D. - you really eloquently capture all of the feelings I have for this little film. It is so big and mesmerizing with emotion annd feeling. Your final summation is precisely why this film resonates with me.

    I've seen it a few times and I want to see it again because you capture all of the beauty that is in this film between these two unlikely people making this kind of connection.

    Coppola's casting is perfect. Scarlett was so mysterious and beautiful to me. She was so intriguing as an unknown. I was in awe of her. It was a career highlight, because as talented as she is, I've never quite looked at her the same as I did in this film.

    Also, Murray delivers a knockout performance.

    Anyway, such a hypnotic film with a terrific location. Excellent review of this wonderful film and relate to it we do.

  6. Sci-Fanatic:

    Thanks so much for the kind words, my friend. "Hypnotic film" is right. There is a mood and atmosphere to this film that I totally find captivating and tried to convey in my review. Coppola really nailed it with this one and showed that THE VIRGIN SUICIDES was no fluke.