I guess before I start saying anything possibly interesting I should warn you that if you haven’t yet seen “Lost in Translation”, you shouldn’t read this review. Why do people believe a review will help them decide whether or not to see a movie, anyway? Why does everyone want to know what things will be like before they happen?
So, you’ve been warned. Let’s go. “Lost in Translation” is a story about two Americans — Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson — who are adrift in Japan, a world where everybody speaks an incomprehensible language and follows a set of rules never to be revealed.
The sooner you figure out that it’s about anyone living anywhere in the world, the better off you are.
Bill Murray plays a man every introvert can relate to. If he was a word, it would be lonely. But this is a particular kind of loneliness: That weird sort of sinking feeling you get when you look in the mirror and notice that your favorite shirt makes you look like a tool. It’s the certainty that you aren’t cool, beautiful, or handsome anymore — pick your adjective. But the end result is that you are surrounded by people who possess all of these things without even thinking about it. If you were a different sort of person, a hopeless kind of person, you would hate them because of it. Instead you are in awe of them. You wish terribly you could be like them again.
He is an outsider at the end of his rope. Stuck with a wife who’s stuck in the humdrum of family life, what he wants most of all is to be loved again, to find his way back into his life.
“Should I be worried about you, Bob?” his wife asks over the phone towards the end of the movie. She remains nameless for almost the entirety of the film: She’s just a single uppercase cursive “L” at the end of a series of faxes he receives in his hotel room that might as well be blank sheets of paper.
“Only if you want to,” he replies.
She doesn’t say anything — just takes a deep breath, almost a sigh maybe (It’s been over for a long time, Bob, there’s no point now in being dramatic, there’s never been a reason to be dramatic) and tells him she’s got to go.
There is a way he can be saved, though. He knows how to do it.
Scarlett Johansson plays the kind of girl I want to fall in love with: Beautiful inside and out but doesn’t know it. It sounds like a bullshit Hollywood cliché, the modern-day intellectual’s version of a fairy tale princess, but the truth is I know at least three girls right this very moment who are exactly like her.
The funny thing is that when you try to tell them they’re beautiful, they don’t believe it. Isn’t it obvious? I mean, seriously. Just take a look in the mirror just after you’ve washed your face in the morning. Smile. Don’t you see it? Comb your hair, slip on a coat, catch a glimpse of yourself in a door shutting behind you. Come on — not even now? Take a walk at lunchtime; buy half a sandwich and a bowl of soup from a place with an old-sounding name. Reach out your hand to take your change — do you see it now? Can you see it in the line of your arm? Can you see it in yourself at all?
I wish there was a simple little gesture you could give someone when you think they’re beautiful. Like waving. Hello, girl who is about to take my parking space once I’ve left it. Hello, girl whose party I am attending tonight. Hello, girl sitting beside me at a boring lecture. I think you’re beautiful.
The trouble with this idea is that in the real world, “I think you’re beautiful” usually gets followed up by “I want to have sex with you,” and that introduces so many complications that the first part, the part that really counts, gets lost and you don’t even want to try.
The details of Scarlett Johansson’s character’s life are quite inconsequential. She’s got a degree in philosophy, and her husband of two years is a photographer and kind of an asshole for no apparent reason. The important thing to know is that she’s lost. She’s got no signposts, no recommended destinations now that she’s graduated and gotten married. But she is not fundamentally screwed the way Bill Murray’s character is. Not yet.
The movie starts off with a shot of Scarlett’s butt veiled by a set of translucent pink panties. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie at all, but it’s got to be in my top five best movie beginnings of the past 10 years. Sigh.
Then the movie screws around for a while, hoping that we’ll be taken aback by how weirdly beautiful Tokyo is, amused by Bill Murray’s attempts to understand everything the Japanese people try to tell him, or intrigued with trying to figure out exactly who he is and what he’s doing in Tokyo. It does that very clever no-exposition thing, so instead you have to guess what’s going on from context.
I got taken aback a bit, but for some reason I felt like I’d seen all the “what English word are you trying to say, Japanese hooker? Oh, rip, very funny” parts before, but I couldn’t tell you where. Maybe real life. And as for the intrigued part — well, he’s a movie star who isn’t much of a star anymore, and he’s there to film a series of commercials for Japanese whiskey. Not really much of a revelation.
Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson’s trekking around Tokyo as well, and there’s no exposition for her either. Then again, she doesn’t have much of a back story to worry about, so we’re just twiddling our thumbs until our co-stars finally start talking to each other.
Once it happens, the movie takes off. “Lost in Translation” probably will get shelved as at least partially romantic, which is wrong. Romance isn’t the right word for it. Romance is gallantry and poetry and suffering and, most of all, comic misunderstanding — Emily Bront?´ and Jane Austen territory. This movie is about the kind of relationship that develops in insomnia.
You’re both lying in bed, watching TV even though everything on it stopped making sense an hour ago. Drinking sake from a box — a goddamn box, why would anyone drink from a container with corners? Maybe 25 percent of why you’re still awake is sexual tension, but there’s another, more important reason. You don’t want to say goodbye. You don’t want to have to walk down a corridor all by yourself. You say things without thinking about what they’re supposed to mean, without worrying whether they make you beautiful or ugly. You’re just yourself.
It’s not romance. It’s something more than plain old trust. It can’t be described by words, but you understand it without having to think about it.
That’s maybe one of the big lessons of the movie. All the random Japanese gibberish is essentially noise. There’s no moment, like in “Clockwork Orange,” where you suddenly get what everyone is trying to say. Instead you understand that it’s all just jibber-jabber — birdcalls that serve only to signal to the rest of the world that you’re still there.
None of it really matters when two people are lying next to each other late at night. It’s just being where you are and who you are that’s important. Words are what the rest of the world uses. You don’t need them.
I guess by now you must be wondering when it is that I’m going to get down to talking about the plot. I don’t think there’s really a plot, per se, in the movie, which is normally something you say when you think a movie sucks. But it feels right for “Lost in Translation”. Sure, there are wacky adventures with karaoke, hours logged at a hotel bar, and even a brief interlude at a strip club, but if you were to draw what happens on a chalk board, it’d look more like a bunch of Tinkertoys stuck together instead of a mountain.
But I will say this: There is no other ending I could imagine for this movie than the one they put down on film. I think that’s a pretty high compliment. When you don’t have a mountain path to walk, everything — the writing, the acting, the cinematography, all that other stuff that fills up credits but is mostly lost on philistines like me — has to be tight.
“Lost in Translation” isn’t a date movie. It’s a movie that makes you want to call up that girl you haven’t seen in a long, long time, that girl you used to be in love with, and just talk in the dark, like old times.