The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

****/*****

 


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Photo credits: IMDb

TBT: Lost in Translation (2003)

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There are some titles out there you know you have no good excuse for avoiding for so long. It’s not even like you were accidentally putting them after others in a queue because you wanted to see those others first. You just, forgot about them. I’m not just referring to small, independent movies that have a tendency of slipping between the cracks. Those movies almost go out of their way to be avoided, either because they’re trendy arthouse pictures with highly niched audiences, or are movies whose presences just weren’t advertised well. No, I’m talking about a major motion picture event that you’re pretty certain everyone has seen but you. You pretty much believe that’s the case because when you’re done watching the movie that was gathering dust (thanks, Netflix!), the first thing out of your mouth is ‘Wow, how have I not seen this before?’ It’s a reaction you just can’t help having, a guiltiness that makes you feel as though you are re-joining society. Such an experience happened to me this week when I finally got to this entry.

Today’s food for thought: Lost in Translation

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Release: September 26, 2003

[Netflix]

Sofia Coppola and my relationship is apparently a bipolar one. I’ve loathed her and now I love her! And I have no idea what to expect next. The first, and only other film of hers that I’ve seen — The Bling Ring — I regarded as one of the most tedious film experiences I had had throughout all of 2013. It failed on all levels to connect, and I walked out not feeling like a baller at all.

Interestingly enough, ten years ago almost to the day of that release she had created something stylistically similar that would hit virtually all of the right notes with me, to the point of it looking for a place to stay on my list of all-time favorites.

If The Bling Ring could be described as a story progressed by action rather than explication and a whole lot of dialogue, the same could be said of her early 2000s romantic comedy Lost in Translation, with the most notable difference being a cast of characters that are actually likable, even if they are still imperfect. With a camera following characters that seem to be wandering, both films share a relative lack of dialogue and explanation so as to put emphasis on visual clues and context in order for the story to have weight. Whereas her 2013 effort focused on rather dislikable, superficial fame-obsessed youths (I’m sure this is somebody’s crowd — not mine, though) her prior work found two lost souls traveling abroad in the rather hectic tech hub that is Tokyo.

Not much else is shared in common between the two films, but the directorial style is identifiable already. In Tokyo an aging actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whose career had experienced a big slide recently, came across a recent college graduate named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who’s traveling with her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), an apparently busy and successful photographer. Bob was finding it difficult adapting to the new culture, even if it was only to be for a brief period of time while he shot a commercial for a Japanese whiskey; and his marriage back home was going through a difficult spell. On the other side of the room, Charlotte was constantly being left alone to fend for herself in the big city because John was always working. She was growing more and more distant and depressed at the same time Bob was becoming more tired of his life.

And cue the eventual first meeting in their hotel’s bar and dining area.

Lost in Translation was a thoroughly enjoyable and breezy film that sailed on its charming central characters. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray proved to be an excellent pairing, with a young Johansson giving wonderful life to a character that perpetually suffered. It was the kind of performance that would indicate a promising talent, as she was wise beyond her years as a philosophical young woman trying to understand her position in life. As a jaded older man who was trying to understand the very same thing, Murray’s reserved poise never felt better suited. He didn’t come up with any goofy, memorable one-liners but his simple presence was strong enough to affect a constant smirk. Even though both characters hurt, they were never unlikable and allowed the film to pass by with the quickness.

Though this was truly Murray and Johansson’s show, the side characters had a moderate impact in that they were so peripheral they bothered us. They were those loose eyelashes poking us in the eye and irritating it for days. Ribisi with very limited screen time convinced us he doesn’t really want much to do with his wife and would prefer to be snapping photos all the time. . . especially some requested by an old college friend (Anna Faris). Faris’ Kelly was a silly and self-serving diversion and not much more, but she was memorable for that reason.

There is a sense of exoticism because of where the film’s set, there is no doubt about that. The experience often seemed more surreal than it actually was. When it comes to analyzing the characters’ morality and their motivations, the film truly opens up. In terms of justifying this clandestine relationship in Tokyo, how does one do that, exactly? Though the people involved were truly likable, both were in committed relationships. But did anything ever reach a point where their faithfulness might be questioned? The moral lines blur with the physical ones in this emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening romantic comedy.

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4-5Recommendation: Lost in Translation is a quality picture both in terms of its lead performances and in its design. It impresses like a delicate piece of art yet it maintains the feel of a mainstream production. Often lighthearted and quickly paced, it also bears heavy emotion and speaks to heavy hearts, and is one that likely won’t leave either the heart or memory very quickly. For the small percentage of you who has not seen this yet, let me be another person to tell you it is highly recommended viewing.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.youtube.com; http://www.imdb.com