Lost in Translation

Open-ended films really bring out the best emotions in audiences. The most recent, and hotly debated, example of this is Inception, but I won’t get into those questions here. The one question I have is: What does he whisper?! Lost in Translation was released in 2003 and I had heard plenty about the ending before finally viewing it. Luckily, knowing what is to come ultimately does not affect your stance on the film.


Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an actor on the decline of his career and is stuck in Japan making a commercial for whiskey. Back home, his wife is hounding him about trivial matters while his kids are disappointed he is not around. He ends up befriending Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a girl who followed her workaholic photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Japan with no plan other than to spend time with her husband. The film follows the pair as they find an unlikely companion in one another and build a tight bond in a foreign land.

For Translation there are two clear strong points: the display of Tokyo/Japanese culture and the acting of the leads. Neither Charlotte nor Bob know any Japanese or anything about the city, so they are forced to nod with an infinitely perplexed expression to every opportunity that crosses their paths. Bob has the struggle of following directions while making his commercial and subsequent advertisements with no idea what is being said to him. Murray is brilliant in balancing humor and exasperation with his Japanese acquaintances. He turns seemingly normal scenes into quite amusing ones – the workout especially.

Meanwhile, the neglected Charlotte actually makes attempts to immerse herself in the Japanese culture. She explores the city, temples and even tries Japanese staples like Ikebana. You have to commend Charlotte for making an effort to enjoy her surroundings and Johansson is surprisingly good at keeping Charlotte strong during such a lost time in her life. She and Murray, along with writer/director Sofia Coppola, keep Charlotte and Bob real enough to build a connection with the audience, which turns out to be a blessing and a curse.

While the characters are great, the film never actually builds to anything. The ending may leave you wanting and curious, but it isn’t a level that would garner excitement, just mild interest. Translation is, for the most part, slow and does not progress far. Charlotte and Bob have an immediate connection that lasts throughout the film, but doesn’t surpass the initial fervor at any point. This may be due to the minimalized sexual tension and sort of sensei-like role Bob takes in helping Charlotte deal with her rut. Coppola tries to counteract this prospective boredom with potentially offensive jokes at the expense of the Japanese. The overcompensation of “l” and “r” is odd at first, but persists and reaches overindulgence. This, in combination with everything being miniature in comparison to Murray, could offend some people for the sake of amusing others.

Lost in Translation is a solid story of an improbable duo finding friendship and building a tight bond in a short period of time. Much like Charlotte was supposed to enjoy Japan, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to like Translation more than I did. Lost in Translation is the kind of film that is entertaining, but falters in never surpassing a mild level of intrigue.

  1. My wife and I saw this in theaters on our very first date.

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