With LOST IN TRANSLATION, writer/director Sofia Coppola lives up to the promise of the potential she exhibited in GODFATHER III. This tedious vanity piece is enlivened only by the charm of its leading man, Bill Murray, and by the astonishingly haphazard way in which the film as a whole appears to have been slapped together.
Murray plays Bob Harris, an all but washed-up movie star who hit his peak in the 70s and pays the bills these days by making commercials in Japan. This is where the film is at its best, during those all too short interludes when Coppola is just letting the camera roll, allowing Murray as the bedraggled ex-star to interact with the Japanese and their culture, to riff freely with a sushi chef who speaks no English or a photographer who wants him to evoke Roger Moore’s James Bond, not Sean Connery’s. There is a palpable sense to Murray’s Harris that he knows the joke is on him and that the best thing to do is go along with it, with all the dignity and grace the situation permits. There is to him a sad-eyed cynicism paired with a hard-boiled civility that is at once witty and tragic. He is a man who has given up goals in favor of the path of least resistance and not just professionally. His marriage has breathed its last, yet neither party has the energy to throw in the towel, each going their separate ways together with only the kids and carpet samples to keep them chatting.
Marriage woes are also the problem with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the brainy wife of photographer Giovanni Ribisi. He’s in Japan to shoot a rock group, she’s there to be unhappy. And in Johansson’s performance, we see the extent of Coppola’s talent as a director. Under her supervision, Johansson’s grit has been worn to a bland smoothness and burnished to the sort of dull sheen that absorbs any energy reflected onto it. Even Murray’s. Part of the problem, too, is how underwritten the part is. There is little for Johansson to do but look gloomy, sometimes while sitting by the window of her hotel room, sometimes while wandering tourist attractions, her steps as aimless as the direction the film takes whenever it thusly follows her. There is just nothing for Johansson to sink her talented teeth into. Even a night on the town with Murray singing karaoke turns into an Asian pub crawl where things happen for no good reason, the story is not advanced, and Johansson inexplicably dons a pink wig and then, just as inexplicably, sheds it.
By the time Bob and Charlotte have the requisite deep discussion about marriage and happiness, even they seem bored to narcolepsy by the proceedings. There’s nothing left but for one of them to leave and when that finally happens, it’s a farewell that drags on forever becoming more irksome with each passing moment that plods by with aching slowness.
LOST IN TRANSLATION would have been a terrific short featuring Murray as the detritus of the film industry. I say short because there’s not enough else going on in this film to merit its 109-minute running time and because it’s never too late to go back into the editing room and come up with a winner.