A Love Affair for the postcollege, flirting-with-Buddhism set, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a travelogue of the emotions, concerned with the deepening relationship between a playful, bored, world-famous roué and an edgily intelligent woman who doesn’t keep busy enough. The roué is all-American Bill Murray, rather than Love Affair‘s excitingly Gallic Charles Boyer; the woman, Scarlett Johansson, is considerably younger than was Irene Dunne; and the meeting place, where these voyagers temporarily float free of their attachments, is not a trans-Atlantic steamship but the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo. With those adjustments taken into account, though, and with the crucial substitution of color film for black and white, you might say that Coppola has done something remarkably improbable for a young filmmaker who is cool by birth. She has dreamed up a close contemporary analogy to the Leo McCarey classic, right down to its chapel scene. Lost in Translation turns out to be a relaxed and surprisingly chaste character study, in which a difficult-to-impossible romance takes place in a luxurious setting full of music and spiritual longing.
Spiritual longing might in fact be the film’s defining element, even though Coppola has begun with a shot of Johansson’s recumbent tush, which in the soft green light looks like a panty-clad hill, all lush and vernal. You know at a glance that someone will want a leisurely climb; and even without having seen the trailer, you can be sure that the someone is Murray. Economy of means: With a single image, Coppola signals that Lost in Translation will grow tense around the question of when and how Murray will get into bed with Johansson. And more: Since all but the most untutored moviegoers know that the age difference between these actors nearly matches that between Coppola and her father, Francis, the answer to the question would seem to entail not just plot complications but also legal issues, or maybe atavistic horror.
Who could be so clean-minded as to ignore the implications? Not Coppola. She brings the daughter-father theme right to the surface by making parenting the core subject of her characters’ deepest conversation. As Johansson lies next to Murray–I will confirm that she’s in bed, although I won’t reveal when or how she got there–he gives her the kind of common-sense advice that a drifting twentysomething might want from a father. In an act of ventriloquistic wish-fulfillment on Coppola’s part, Murray even tells her that his children are the most delightful people he could ever hope to meet. It’s a lovely sentiment under any circumstances, and all the more touching when the father is horizontal beside his nubile daughter-surrogate.
But, that said, who could be so dirty-minded as to insist on an incestuous Sofia-Francis reading of Lost in Translation, when the characters spend less time in bed than they do riding the Park Hyatt elevators? Johansson and Murray also visit karaoke bars, game arcades and Buddhist temples, contemplate flower arrangements and neon signs, sit around in still more bars and then wonder aloud about how seriously to take a book titled A Soul’s Search. Of course the possibility of sex continues to hover as they do these things; but the opportunity is also continually edged aside, since these characters are smart enough to know that sex is a way to lose themselves, and what they really want is to get their bearings from each other. Lost in Translation is about the dislocation of these two people–in Tokyo, but also in the course of their lives.
The dislocation seems all the more absurd for Murray because of his superior height, which makes him stand out like a landmark in every scene. Like a landmark, he is pointed at, photographed and gathered under, not just because of his size but because he is playing the role of Bob Harris, a Hollywood star who has come to Japan to endorse a brand of whiskey and collect $2 million. This circumstance would make some men feel secure in the world–and yet Murray spends most of the film gazing down with muted, baggy-eyed astonishment. Already weary from travel when he comes onto the scene, then further undermined by insomnia and drink–“The good news,” he says, “is the whiskey works”–he greets most situations with a reptilian blink, a swallow (as the initial wisecrack slides down his throat) and then a quietly voiced rejoinder, the import of which is generally “Get me out of here.”
Johansson is more vocal. As Charlotte–a woman who has been left on the loose while her husband works day and night–she weeps over her confusion, treats her husband’s friends as idiots and marvels aloud at what a pathetic midlife crisis Murray is having. Most actresses would be insufferable in the role; but Johansson, whose plush-lipped smile can be wide and knowing at once, has a way of softening Charlotte’s aggression, whether it’s directed at others or herself. She lets you see that she teases people, or flat-out insults them, mostly out of despair about herself; you see that she lets herself despair only to the point where she’d need to tease herself. Like other young people who are getting a late start in life, Charlotte has good reason to feel troubled; but her sense of the ridiculous prevents her from becoming fully engaged even with her own unhappiness. How bad is she allowed to feel, when she’s got a Yale degree, a five-star hotel and the hippest bars in Tokyo?
So there’s a delicacy, a reserve, to Johansson’s character, which melds beautifully with Murray’s air of reluctant resignation. (He knows the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths require him to abandon his desires–he knows his body is starting to make the same demand–but the devil in his ear keeps whispering, “Not yet.”) Lost in Translation is the unexpectedly involving story of how these two people start to play with each other–and play seriously–in a wonderland of colored lights, pop music and indecipherable writing that they find incomprehensible.
As a director, Coppola is especially good at the colored lights and pop music part. With the help of cinematographer Lance Acord (who also shot Being John Malkovich), she makes her tourist’s Tokyo into a true floating world. She is less good when the characters need to come back to earth. Coppola has the bad habit of cutting scenes short just when the actual decisions would have to be made–when Johansson, after a distressing phone call, would need to figure out how and why to stop weeping, or when Murray would need to accept or reject the slapstick advances of a prostitute who has come to his room. Lost in Translation suffers from too many such magical nontransitions; but it’s rescued because Johansson and Murray carry through the thought, even when Coppola fails to.
She is, by the way, 32 years old and has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations in making a movie that’s droll, wistful, dreamy and (in its last moments) bracingly sober. It’s as gorgeously strange as Tokyo itself that someone of Coppola’s generation should want to make such a picture. It’s as heartening, and as sweetly melancholy, as Lost in Translation that she should feel nostalgic while doing so. “I wanted the movie to feel…like a memory,” she has said, and so she chose to shoot on film rather than digital video. “Film might not be around that long, so we wanted to shoot on film while we still can.”
There, if you’re searching for it, is the real daughter-father romance.
The new Warner Bros. release Matchstick Men also involves a father-daughter story, an explicit one; and since the film stars Nicolas Cage (a showboating contrast to the brilliant but disciplined Murray), I wanted to see how it would play. Besides, Ridley Scott directed the picture. You can never predict which Scott will show up on the set–the one who made Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise, or the guy responsible for G.I. Jane–but with him, there’s always the chance of a real movie coming out.
In this case, I’d say the results amount to three-fourths of a real movie. Matchstick Men is the story of a con artist (Cage) who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder–lots of little rituals, lots of housecleaning and facial tics–and lives alone, risking normal human contact only when he buys his cigarettes and canned tuna at the supermarket. (He favors a particular cashier, who he thinks is pretty.) After he’s been through a particularly bad spell, which interrupts his work in swindling Los Angeles homeowners, his partner in crime (Sam Rockwell) refers him to a psychiatrist, who in turn gets him to contact Angela (Alison Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter he’s never seen. She turns out to be a normal young woman, except for a talent (perhaps inherited) for the kind of playacting that relieves people of their money.
Even if you’re as bad at plots as I am, you will surely figure out the story long before the last con has been played and the final character triple-crossed. That’s the ersatz 25 percent of the film most of which has been tacked unmercifully onto the end. (The rest of the phoniness is the vintage Rat Pack music, which is fashionable these days but which Cage’s character would never listen to.) The genuine movie may be found in Cage’s performance as a quick-tongued, utterly joyless man and in the high-gloss setting that Scott provides for him. If you think Hollywood professionalism is itself a con, then that won’t be enough for you. If you realize how rarely such professionalism is seen anymore, then (at current box-office rates) you’ll feel cheated out of only $2.50.