An Appreciation: Lost in Translation Turns 10
Maybe it was a recent karaoke outing, maybe it was ScarJo’s recent reclamation of Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive title, maybe it’s just the overwhelming sense of alienation that comes with aging and growing and letting time pass (anyone?), but I recently had an incurable itch to rewatch Lost in Translation. And that’s when it hit me:
Holy shit. It’s been almost exactly 10 years since Lost in Translation came out.
That deserves a celebration.
First off, I’m not arguing that Lost in Translation is a masterpiece. I don’t really believe in masterpieces. But it is a movie I find myself thinking about more often than I would’ve expected in 2003, when I sat down in an Upper East Side movie theater, spending what little money I had on my first true movie theater experience as a New Yorker.
Before we continue, I feel obliged to address what, far as I can tell, are the two main criticisms of Lost in Translation.
1. It’s a real #firstworldproblems kind of movie. (Or, as Cinecultist memorably put it, it’s about “a life of alienated passionate detachment while wearing the Marc Jacobs fall line.”)
2. It’s condescending toward Japanese culture.
To those I’ll say:
1. You’re right. But not every movie can be Hotel Rwanda, nor should it. (And sometimes it’s nice to spend an hour and a half with a couple beautiful funny people in a beautiful location. Crazy, I know.)
2. You’re not right. The movie certainly captures the insanity of Japanese pop culture, but I don’t think that’s a Japanese-specific thing. It’s a pop culture thing. The movie could’ve made the same jokes about weird game shows and linguistic misunderstandings if it had been set in Germany, Thailand or, hell, Scotland.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way (and now that anyone who despises the movie has probably cleared out)... how awesome is Bill Murray in this movie, huh?
Even now, it feels like a revelation. Sure, we’d seen Bill’s melancholy side before—especially in Rushmore and the now-legendary Groundhog Day. But both those movies keep you at a bit of a distance, due to filmmaking style in one case and a supernatural concept in another. Lost in Translation, despite the title, is very intimate: Bill Murray as “Bob Harris,” basically doing the things you’d expect Bill Murray to be doing, whether it’s picking out carpet samples by fax or amiably doing a “Rat Pack” version of the “Suntory time” tagline. He hasn’t been as open—as funny, as sad, as real—on film again.
Throughout the movie, like many of us, he seems to have no real idea why he’s doing whatever he’s doing: the money’s good (the Suntory gig evidently pays 2 million bucks), the experience is interesting. He’s not satisfied, but he’s not not satisfied.
It’s not an easy thing to dramatize, but Sofia Coppola pulls it off in three ways: 1, casting Bill Murray, one of the most watchable actors of the past 30 years; 2, using a lot of close-ups on Bill, in all his deadpan, pockmarked, rumpled beauty; 3, having the good sense to cast him opposite Scarlett Johansson, who can’t entirely play down her sexiness (which gives the movie a subtle erotic tension) and whose wide eyes can convey the confusion and wonder of a quarter-life crisis (while, yes, wearing the Marc Jacobs fall line).
It’s a despairing film, but the obvious chemistry between the characters (and actors) is what gives the film hope. For me, the key moment—the one I come back to again and again—comes in the karaoke bar, after a long night out with Charlie Brown and his gang of Tokyo randoms. Murray takes the mic and performs a warbling, vulnerable rendition of “More Than This.” From the look on his face, he means every word, and is realizing he means it as he’s singing it. It’s the most human moment in a very human movie—and, of course, Bryan Ferry’s lyrics perfectly capture the moment...
It was fun for a while There was no way of knowing Like a dream in the night Who can say where we’re going... More than this There is nothing More than this...