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"LOST IN TRANSLATION"
(2003) (Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A disillusioned actor and an equally lost photographer's wife meet in Tokyo and become fast friends while ultimately discovering that they can truly be happy.
PLOT:
Bob Harris (BILL MURRAY) is an American movie actor who's in Tokyo shooting a series of ads for a brand of Whiskey. Charlotte (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) is a recent philosophy major graduate who's also in the capital, but it's her photographer husband, John (GIOVANNI RIBISI), who's doing all of the work.

Both Bob and Charlotte aren't happy with their respective positions in life. Despite being famous and rich, Bob is going through a midlife crisis and no longer finds his marriage to his wife fun or rewarding. While Charlotte loves John, she's bored with being alone in a land where she can't understand the language, isn't sure of who or what she should or wants to be, and isn't happy that John is spending a lot of time with American actress Kelly (ANNA FARIS).

Suffering from recurring insomnia, Bob and Charlotte eventually meet and recognize that they're kindred spirits despite coming from different generations. As Bob remains in town for an appearance on a popular TV talk show, he and Charlotte soon become fast friends and explore the land while ultimately discovering that they can truly be happy.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
At one time, poets were the rock and roll and movie celebrities of the world. While they're still big in some smaller circles, they've lost most of the allure they one held with the masses. Not all is lost, however, as songwriters and performers have taken up the slack, often with startling, moving and inspirational results.

They certainly play a big part in writer/director Sofia Coppola's sophomore feature film outing, "Lost in Translation.' No, the picture isn't about such people, but the work of various artists is nearly just as prominent as the main characters in Coppola's telling of her story.

Whether being sung by the actors in some karaoke moments, belted out by a lounge singer or simply appearing on the soundtrack, a number of terrific songs are heard and provide a great deal of symbolism tied into the plot. While that might sound overbearing and/or pretentious on Coppola's part - and it's occasionally overused just a tad - the daughter of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola mostly makes good use of the songs and generally manages to insert them into the material in a natural fashion.

Taken on face level, the film and its title reflect the difficulties and humor of strangers in a foreign land trying to understand the locals and their surroundings. Faced with overzealous and verbose directors, photographers and others, Bill Murray's character simply smiles, nods and goes along with what's said and occurs.

That provides for a great deal of the film's low-key and sly humor, such as when Murray is amazed at the apparent ratio of Japanese to American words in translation. Then there are the moments where he realizes he's more than a head and shoulders above others in the elevator with him and that shower heads there aren't designed for his height.

The beauty of such material is that it makes the story and its characters endearing to the viewer. That then allows the deeper subtext to flow forth without alienating anyone. In this case, that's dealing with characters who are lost in their own translation of life.

Despite being famous and getting paid $2 million for the liquor ad campaign that's brought him to Tokyo, Murray's character isn't happy. In fact, he's going through a midlife crisis not unlike Kevin Spacey's character in "American Beauty."

As was the case in that film, the middle-aged protagonist is dissatisfied by how things have turned out and finds himself drawn to a woman young enough to be his daughter. Yet, unlike "Beauty," we never see the source of his discontent (we only occasionally hear his wife on the phone) and his attraction to the young woman - terrifically played by Scarlett Johansson - is far more related to finding a kindred spirit than anything to do with sexual longings.

Johansson's Charlotte is just starting out in life. Recently graduated and only married a few years, she doesn't know who she is, who she should be, or what she wants in life. All she knows, like Bob, is that she isn't happy and thus suffers from insomnia. When her photographer husband -- Giovanni Ribisi ("Basic," "Heaven") - heads off for a several day shoot, she and Bob end up spending time together and bonding in that sort of budding friendship that could lead to romance fashion that engages the viewer.

Yes, they're both married and bordering on cheating, but the way the performances, writing and directing blend together, you can't help but want the two to get together, if only because you know it will make them happy.

Such material could have been risky business if not handled with the right aplomb. Fortunately, Coppola ("The Virgin Suicides") does that and more, delivering a wonderfully crafted and engaging film. She and cinematographer Lance Acord ("Adaptation," "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") also capture various locales in Japan with such loving care that the film could serve as a travelogue of sorts for the country's tourism board.

Some may complain that there are too many montages of such vista shots and that they and thus the film are too slow. I can understand the criticism, but I was so enraptured by the overall proceedings - some of which reminded me a bit of what Paul "Risky Business" Brickman has crafted in his two films - that I didn't mind.

The performances from the leads certainly enhance the effort. Essentially a two-person show - with some brief background and minor parts - Murray ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Groundhog Day") and Johansson ("Ghost World," "The Horse Whisperer") are outstanding. While she perfectly captures early twenty-something angst, he's near brilliant playing the middle-aged man who's going through a midlife crisis with a dry sense of humor.

Possibly not for all viewers due to the slow pacing, I found the film to be a terrific balance of comedy, drama and lyrical moments that would make the poets of old quite proud. "Lost in Translation" made perfect sense to me and thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 15, 2003 / Posted September 12, 2003


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