Lost in Translation
reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, October 17, 2003
Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," starring the melancholy and mordant Bill Murray, delivers, among other pleasures, a wonderfully nasty tribute to the satirical travel writing of Evelyn Waugh in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth on October 28.
Murray plays an aged, downhearted, and jet-lagged action-movie star, a cross between Bruce Willis and himself. He is killing time in a Tokyo Hyatt between making a whiskey commercial under a long-winded but incomprehensible Japanese director and being interviewed by the "Johnny Carson of Japan," who turns out to be more like the Pee-Wee Herman of Mars.
It's hard to imagine what the poor Japanese have done since, oh, 1946 to justify Coppola's malicious obtuseness. She mocks them for speaking an inscrutable foreign language, for saying "lip" when they mean "rip," and for being just plain short.
The film's ethnic derision would be sophomoric if Coppola's script wasn't so sharp and, in Murray's expert hands, so funny. Murray has reached the point in his career where in an absurd situation he doesn't have to say anything sardonic -- he merely hints at one of his famous facial expressions and we mentally fill in the blank for him.
So he's got that going for him, which is nice because over the years he's lost much of his energy as his sadness has deepened. The tragedy of comedy is that as many of its greatest practitioners, such as Murray and Waugh, age, their depression and misanthropy come to the fore.
Coppola's script deftly exploits an insight of Waugh and the even grumpier Paul Theroux: The secret to entertaining travel writing is to elegantly fail to figure out why those perplexing natives do the inexplicable things they do.
In impoverished Ethiopia, for example, a man boasted to Waugh in "very obscure English" that his businessman uncle had some sort of "monopoly," but Waugh couldn't understand what kind. In this situation, James Michener, an admirable man but a mediocre artist, would have diligently found a translator, and probably organized a debate over whether Ethiopia needed its own Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Waugh, however, complacently declared himself baffled because "monopoly" seemed to be "a perfectly adequate description of almost all commercial ventures in Abyssinia."
Coppola expertly captures the oddly decentering effect of modern business travel. The hotel seems dispiritingly like every other downtown luxury hotel in the world, yet its Japanese idiosyncrasies just make it even more disconcerting to Murray.
Because Japan doesn't import many Third World immigrant workers, the Japanese have robotized many service jobs, which takes some getting used to. Murray's drapes fling themselves open in the morning, and in the empty hotel gym, he finds himself in the clutches of an unstoppable and hyperactive exercise machine shouting indecipherable and no doubt deranged commands at him.
He can't talk to the locals, can't navigate the streets, and can't fathom the peculiar television fare (except for his old movies, which have been dubbed into Japanese). He can't calculate an appropriate hour to call his resentful wife in America, and can't find the words to make her understand what he's undergoing.
Another gloomy guest is a privileged but purposeless young woman played by Scarlett Johansson, who is fresh out of Yale with a philosophy degree. "Lot of money in that racket," Murray supportively comments after meeting her in the Hyatt's lavish bar. She's tagging along after her husband, a workaholic fashion photographer who has been instructed to make nerdy Japanese bands "rook more lock and loll."
Her husband seems more interested in a ditzy Cameron Diaz-lookalike in town to promote her new kung-fu movie with Keanu Reeves. Viciously, Coppola has the Diaz character (who has checked into the Hyatt under the name "Evelyn Waugh" without realizing Waugh was a man) burble, "Everybody thinks I'm anorexic, but I'm not. My dad, though, is anorexic. See, he was captured at the Bay of Pigs and Castro tortured him with food."
Murray and Johansson find themselves increasingly drawn together, apparently by their mutual refusal to be culturally enriched by their all-expenses-paid sojourns in one of the world's great cities.
As they share inarticulate confidences about their dreary marriages and visit a karaoke bar where they sing Pretenders and Elvis Costello classics, their funk lifts. Johansson eventually even allows herself to be charmed by the sight of a traditional wedding in Kyoto.
But are the feelings of the 52-year-old Murray for Johansson (who in real life is only 18) erotic or avuncular? Some have proclaimed "Lost in Translation" to be a classic romance in the tradition of David Lean's "Brief Encounter." Others may find their relationship creepy.
Fortunately, American movies have gotten much more conservative about sex over the last few years, and both groups will find the unconsummated ending poignant.
Rated R merely for yet another pointless strip club scene.