Lost in Translation

I’m not a huge fan of “The Virgin Suicides”, Sofia Coppola’s mysteriously beloved debut. It does have gorgeous music, cinematography and actresses (mmm, Kirsten Dunst), but it suffers from barely sketched characters and an uninvolving narrative. Now Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter and Spike Jonze’s wife is back with another film riding on a wave of critical praise and, again, I must say I don’t quite see the alleged genius at work.

“Lost in Translation” revolves around Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman who recently graduated from Yale, and Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a mostly washed out Hollywood action star reduced to doing whiskey commercials. They’re both lost souls: Charlotte is unsure of who she is or what she wants to be, coping with having married too young with a fidgety photograph (Giovanni Ribisi) she might not love anymore, while Bob is experiencing a middle-life crisis, bored with his wife and his semi-stardom. They meet in a hotel and develop a peculiar little relationship, not quite a romance but not quite just friendship either.

Oh, and did I mention that the film is set in Tokyo? I mean, WACKY! Tokyo, with oppressive billboards, karaoke bars, sushi restaurants, insane TV shows… Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I found the film to be a bit condescending towards its Japanese supporting cast, with endless “Aren’t they small?” gags and bemused looks from the American protagonists when confronted with “craaaazy” Japanese culture. There’s also a lot of broad physical comedy, which is surprising in a so-called art film.

And that’s about that, another elusive non-story about oh-so-existential beautiful misfits, with interesting visuals and an awesome soundtrack. Scarlett Johansson is no Kirsten Dunst, but she’s beautiful and fascinating in her own way, and Coppola’s camera is very kind to her (the film’s opening shot is particularly stunning). It’s all about mood, get it, we don’t need no stinkin’ plot! Which is all fine and dandy if you do it right, but Coppola never sustains a mood for more than one scene. Melancholy gives way to WACKY! Japanese antics, then we get a bit of Bill Murray sarcasm, then a stretch with just music and pretty images, then Anna Faris drops by to do a Cameron Diaz impression, then…

I love Murray as much as the next guy and I’m growing fonder and fonder of Johansson, but I never felt the supposedly life-changing connection between them. Sofia Coppola could make some killer music videos, and maybe someday she’ll make a consistently great feature, but this vaporous, half-charming little ditty isn’t it.