Ever watch a film, enjoy it and then come to appreciate it all the more on repeat viewings? I’m there with Lost in Translation. There is something hypnotic about it.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an American movie star making some serious cash as a spokesman for Japanese whisky. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) and has tagged along with him to Tokyo. Neither Bob or Charlotte want to be where they are, in more ways than one. Both struggle to find meaning in the mundaneness. Bob is far away from home partially because distance is what his twenty five year marriage may need – or not. Charlotte is a Yale graduate unsure of what to do with her life. Her loneliness only grows as she’s left on her own when her husband has to work non-stop. Neither can sleep so they find themselves restless in bed or reluctantly at the bar listening to terrible lounge singers perform.
In between the laughs, which mostly come from observing Bob in a land so foreign to himself, there is a quiet desperation. Contrasts abound. The bustling streets and bright lights of Tokyo are juxtaposed against the serene temples and the backdrop of Mt. Fuji. The hectic lives of Bob’s wife (who we hear on the phone but never see) and Charlotte’s husband are in sharp contrast to the near sleepwalking state Bob and Charlotte are in much of the time. Japan culture and American culture collide on screen. The down to earth movie star opposite the hot mess of a Hollywood actress Charlotte’s husband runs into at the hotel. Middle age Bob and twenty-something Charlotte. Sleepless nights yet an incredibly tired duo. So many contrasts.
There is no big story to tell. The camera follows Bob and Charlotte as they form a friendship in the middle of a city and a moment in their lives where they feel lost. We take in Japanese culture through their eyes. Some may find it disrespectful or, at the very least, patronizing. I found it more a fish out of water story. The truth is, Bob and Charlotte are going to feel out of place anywhere they are. Their lives are in a state of flux and confusion, which makes the scenes of their night on the town filled with strange parties and karaoke all the more entertaining. Neither seems like they would want to be where they are yet they’re there, sort of; singing ’70s and ’80s tunes with all the sincerity and joy one might expect if karaoke were performed at a distant relative’s funeral.
The “will they or won’t they get together” aspect of our odd couple is present but never overwhelming in a sitcom kind of way. OK, maybe not until the very end where we are left to wonder what was whispered briefly in the final goodbye. The mysterious ending doesn’t irk me because it left me wondering what was said but because it puts so much emphasis on the friendship possibly moving to a romantic relationship. Up until that point speculation about the nature of their relationship was never the focus of the film. Again, the mystery is fine. I only wish it didn’t leave so much hanging on a question that the film didn’t spend much (if any) time addressing otherwise.
The chemistry between an unlikely pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson can’t be beat. Their odd and lonesome shuffle through a country foreign to both of them is inexplicably compelling. Lost in Translation says so much in so few words. And who would’ve guessed Bill Murray’s last whisper would be, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”?