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Movies: Lost In Translation

When I named my favorite movies of 2003, there was a caveat. "I somehow never got around to seeing Lost In Translation," I wrote after listing the top five, "but I have a hunch that it might have been up there."

Once in a great while one of my hunches turns out to be correct -- although rarely as resoundingly correct as this one turned out to be. Not only would Lost In Translation have made my Top Five, it would have placed squarely in my Top One.

Indeed, Translation crossed the magical line that divides, in my mind, the very good movies from the great: it left me feeling completely ensorcelled by the time the closing credits rolled. This happens to me from time to time, but only rarely, and only with the most extraordinary of films: the first two Lord of the Rings movies, Memento, How's Your News and a handful of others in the last few years. In theater the term is "transported": to be carried away with strong and often intensely pleasant emotion. And the beauty of Translation is such that I not only felt transported emotionally, but physically as well: it was if I was actually visiting Japan.

Set in Tokyo, the whisper-thin plot revolves around Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a washed up action star in town to film a whiskey commercial for two million bucks. Estranged from his wife, resigned to his fate, and unable to get a good night's sleep, Bob bumbles about his surroundings like a bee in a jar. Meanwhile, in the same hotel, the recently married Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is realizing that her husband of two years is largely a stranger to her. Her spouse is a photographer of rock bands and she has accompanied him to Japan for a shoot. As the husband is slowly drawn into the superficial world of celebrity, Charlotte begins to consider herself as essentially on her own.

Like two somnambulists bumping into one another in the dark, Bob and Charlotte eventually cross paths in the hotel lounge, and the remainder of the movie is about the unusual bond that forms between them. After Charlotte's husband leaves Tokyo for a weeklong business trip, the two begin spending their sleepless nights together: watching TV, partying with friends, or simply conversing about topics big and small. Befuddled by the local culture, the two rely on one another to stay sane and keep a looming cloud of depression at bay.

The acting in Translation is astounding -- or, rather, would have be astounding if both Murray and Johansson weren't so skilled at making the audience believe that they aren't acting at all. The scenes of intimacy between the two are so uncannily authentic that, at times, the film feels like a documentary. And every time you think the screenplay is going to take a turn for the predictable, it doesn't.

I would have loved Translation for these reasons alone, but two other factors put the film into the class of my favorites. First, the sense of dislocation expressed so eloquently by the two leads was hauntingly familiar to me, and recalled to mind my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia. anyone who has ever been stranded in a foreign culture owes it to themselves to see the movie.

But here's the real reason why this film moved me like few others. The Queen and I had decided to go see our Last Movie Ever as a childless couple on Saturday, and Lost In Translation was our mutual pick. We'd all but forgotten that it was February 14th (expecting a baby to arrive any moment will do that to you) and, knowing nothing of the film, we didn't realize that it was a romance of sorts, so we sort of stumbled into the perfect Valentine's Day date by accident. Then, halfway through the film we were treated to this dialog:

Bob: It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.

Charlotte: It's scary.

Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.

Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.

Bob: Your life, as you know it ... is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk ... and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

Standing, as we are, on the precipice of parenthood, this is exactly what we needed to hear.

And this exchange neatly encapsulates the essence of the film: life -- and relationships -- are hard. But ultimately worth the effort.

If Lost In Translation is still playing at a nearby theater and you haven't seen it yet, please make an effort to do so. It's wonderful, wonderful.

Posted on February 19, 2004 to Movies


Lost in Translation is the most boring, overhyped, insipidly stupid movie I've seen in years.

Posted by: fgwa on February 19, 2004 10:57 PM

Thank you for the lovely review. I'm an American living in Japan with my Japanese husband and little girl. I love it here but have felt isolated at times over the past year. My daughter goes to preschool and has rapidly picked up the language and made friends. She comes home singing songs in Japanese. I guess it will take quite a bit longer for me to learn. Anyway I can't wait to see the film.

Posted by: Marla on February 19, 2004 11:02 PM

If I'd been to Bolivia and had a pregnant wife (and was able to produce such coherent articles) this is the exact review I would have written.

A brilliant, classic film... can't wait for the DVD (extra scenes hopefully).

Good luck with the 'real' start of operation Squirrelly...

Posted by: Floyd on February 20, 2004 1:32 AM

I saw this movie after I came back from a trip to Japan earlier this year. It evoked some pretty strong feelings of nostalgia. I have to say that feeling out of place in Japan = true. When you look around and you're the only caucasian in sight, you realize how far from home you are.

Posted by: Nathan on February 20, 2004 3:53 AM

"ensorcelled", "somnambulists", my aren't you the sesquipedalian today. 'Lost in Translation' is out on dvd btw. It garnered 88 on metacritic. I was actually followed into the theater by a total stranger who pleaded with me not to see the film. He, like fgwa, found it boring. I, like you, did not. It's in my top five for this year, which leads me to this plea.

In addition to supporting your Feb. 29 Pizza Day initiative I would encourage you and your movie-loving readers to petition the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a new Oscar category, 'Best Young Actor/Actress in a Leading/Supporting Role'

Three of the past films I've seen, 'Whalerider', 'In America' and '13' all feature pubescents, and in one case a pre-pubescent, who clearly outacted the adults. In two of these movies the adults were nominated.

Either they don't get nominated because they're kids or they do get nominated and don't win because they're kids. Creating their own category would solve the problem and get them the recognition they deserve.

Thanks for the review and the Oscar Pool, again.

Posted by: toronto on February 20, 2004 5:31 AM

I loved this movie, despite the hype and everything. I think part of why I liked it was the dislocation you mentioned. My father worked in Malaysia for two years when I was a toddler, sent there to program at airports. It reminded me of what it must have been like for him (as I remember nothing of it - I was 2-4 during those years). My father is 6'6" and blonde, and stuck out like a sore thumb.
I think the movie captured that feeling PERFECTLY.
Congratulations on your upcoming little one!

Posted by: Em on February 20, 2004 6:13 AM

I feel sorry for people who find amazing films like this boring. Seems like a whole world of great things is lost to them.

Posted by: the kiosk on February 20, 2004 6:20 AM

I kinda find it satisfying that I loved this movie, while others just found it boring. It so rarely happens that I "get" something that others don't get, it makes me feel a little smarter :P

I fully intend to buy this on DVD, but I heard the extras were a bit on the slim side... I'm wondering if a more full-bodied DVD will be released after the Oscars...

Posted by: Ryan Waddell on February 20, 2004 7:07 AM

Yeah, I too am beginning to worry that the mighty Lost in Translation hype machine is going to destroy The Return of the King, because, you know, that film has absolutely no hype. Every magazine and newspaper in the world has been featuring Translation stories non-stop for the past three years. When was the last time you saw a story about hobbitses?

All that hype has pushed Translation into the number six all-time spot in gross receipts while Return has earned less than one-tenth the sales.

Oh wait. I've got those reversed, don't I?

Posted by: J.D. Roth on February 20, 2004 7:10 AM

Actually, Ryan, calling the extras on the Lost in Translation DVD "slim" is an understatement. It's the most disappointing disc I've bought in a long time. It doesn't even include chapter break information!

Posted by: J.D. Roth on February 20, 2004 7:12 AM

what's not to like for the average movie-going male? it's got ass (scarlett's heiny in the opening credits) and action (the scandalous bottle-throwing scene with charlie). i fail to see how the absence of cgi, full frontal nudity and a steady noise level of 80 decibels qualifies a movie as boring.

here's the thing: a movie like 'lost in translation' forces the viewer to live in his/her brain. think about things that are emotionally sensitive, like failure, depression and the real consequences of infidelity. if you as a viewer don't like to visit those places in your brain, then feel free to stamp 'BORING' on the movie and call us emotionally sensitive viewers 'esoteric snobs', 'pseudo-intellectuals' and 'hypemongers'. meanwhile, i will continue to enjoy the wonderful (but admittedly spare) dvd.

Posted by: unmute on February 20, 2004 7:26 AM

I lived in Japan for three years as a child, and this movie really captured what it was like to be there as a foreigner. Like others, I felt a big wave of nostalgia for Japan. I thought the movie was brilliant and your review of it really touched me.

One thing you didn't mention that I think is noteworthy is the soundtrack. The music helps set the mood so well and as Coppola decided to use relatively unknown artists, it added to the feeling of disorientation.

Posted by: Kimberly on February 20, 2004 7:31 AM

I absolutely adore lost in translation. i ended up pre-ordering the dvd on amazon before even seeing the film, as i lost my chance to do so in the theater quickly. i have watched it 4 times since getting the DVD, and it seems to be one of "those" films where one can pick up more nuances and background info the more one watches it. i'm actually planning on watching it again this weekend. i found that the DVD of this is like the other Sofia Coppola film i own, the Virgin Suicides. It really doesn't have that many extras, but the extras that are on the DVD are good... it would have been nice to have a commentary, no doubt.

Posted by: Devlyn on February 20, 2004 7:37 AM

I'm definitely going to be checking this movie out this weekend. I can so relate to the scene you quoted after the birth of our own little 'squirrelly' last year.

Good luck on 'the day of doom', errr, I mean the start of all that is good in this life!

Posted by: Jeremy on February 20, 2004 7:54 AM

Your review helped me to relive the movie. Thanks. I love this movie more and more the longer I go since seeing it.

Posted by: Fully on February 20, 2004 8:03 AM

Bill Murray is my hero.

Posted by: Kathryn on February 20, 2004 8:08 AM

Pfft. the DVD may be out in the USofA but UK release is the end of May...

Hype? before I had seen this film in the cinema (about a month ago);
1. I didn't know what it was going to be about
2. I only knew Bill Murray was in it
3. I didn't know who had directed it
4. I had only seen one trailor (which consisted of the 'Lip my stockings' scence and Bill Murray standing in a Lift looking non-plussed) - I had only seen that once...
5. I had seen nothing on T.V. or in magazines saying anything (positive or not) about the movie.

I'll admit that my head tends to stay quite happily down in the sand, but i pick up the buzz on all the other over hyped movies. The first 'hype' I'd heard was that it was nominated for oscars n' stuff

perhaps that's another Atlantic divide thing?

Posted by: Floyd on February 20, 2004 8:10 AM

I knew you'd love it.

Reading your review makes me want to see it again. I've avoided doing so since the first time because of how incredibly affected I was at it's end. I couldn't speak for almost an hour. I wasn't sad so much as touched. And by touched I mean the most careful, patient, tender touch you can imagine.

Posted by: brittney on February 20, 2004 8:44 AM

Count me in the "absolutely loved it" camp.

As an added bonus to getting to see a fabulous film, I was also lucky enough to go on one of the rare nights when my favorite local theatre opened its balcony. There's just something about seeing a great film from the first row of an old theatre's balcony that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Best of luck with Squirrelly Arrival Day.

Posted by: czeltic girl on February 20, 2004 8:49 AM

I had a similar experience to yours: I had heard it would be good, and I was looking forward to it being good, but I didn't expect it to be great. I even told my wife going in, "Well, they've nominated Bill Murray for an Oscar because he got shafted with Rushmore." Boy, was I wrong. Any and all awards are completely deserved. That guy has to have the highest laughs-to-lines ratio of any actor this side of Marcel Marceau. I don't think I've ever heard an entire audience guffaw on a reaction shot before.

And, in this somewhat-public-forum, I'd like to officially apologize to Sofia Coppola for spending the last decade or so calling her the worst actress in a great film ever (Godfather III, of course). It may still be true, but if she can make films like this, the least I can do is shut up.

Posted by: Dugrless on February 20, 2004 8:55 AM

"Lost in translation" was phenomenal - I completely agree!

Posted by: Anonymous on February 20, 2004 8:59 AM

"How's Your News".... howard stern plays a song with that title before their daily news segment. What's that movie about?

Posted by: max on February 20, 2004 9:07 AM

This movie was fantastic. I get a little frustrated by the folks who call it boring, but to each his own. Personally, I was absolutely exhilarated and intensely focused throughout the film and for several hours afterwards. That doesnt come from explosions and boobs.
The "hype" that you speak of, however, is the hype that all good movies should get. It came from viewers actually liking the movie, as opposed to hype generated by commercials and JimCarreyWillSmithJuliaRobertsetc. People (the LCD) are going to get better at watching movies by seeing these types of films. Hopefully it will pave the way for more thought provoking fare in our theaters.

Posted by: Chris on February 20, 2004 9:14 AM

After I saw this movie with a friend, he said, "It left you with a certain feeling."

I think that really sums up what was best about the movie.

Posted by: Karen on February 20, 2004 9:16 AM

How's Your News.

Posted by: Matthew on February 20, 2004 9:17 AM

It seems like people either totally hate this film or love it like nothing else as DY did. But I have to say that I fall in the middle and was rather apathetic about it. I liked it but kinda felt like it wasn't quite worth all the rave reviews it's garnered. Bill Murray was good, in particular, with the scene in the hospital waiting room while he was trying to talk to the little old lady next to him. Sweet but funny. But not necessarily earth shatteringly spectacular.

Ebert and Roeper pointed out that Sofia Coppola is a master of tone and I tend to agree with them after seeing this film. Tone was everything in this film and I think thats what everyone seems to be responding to. It had a definite flavor.

Posted by: HDC on February 20, 2004 12:25 PM

"here's the thing: a movie like 'lost in translation' forces the viewer to live in his/her brain. think about things that are emotionally sensitive, like failure, depression and the real consequences of infidelity."

I couldn't disagree with the above statement more. it was pretentious, empty, all style no content.

Posted by: erin on February 20, 2004 1:02 PM

I don't have kids and was torn over whether I wanted them or not. All the scary kid stories you hear began to take away from the clickety click of my biological clock. The scene that you quoted was probably the most honest thing I'd ever heard about having children and one of the most poignant. Unfortunately, my boyfriend at the time (now ex-) only heard the scary part and all of our conversations about indecision were solidified with each on opposite sides of the fence.

Posted by: sybil on February 20, 2004 1:02 PM

Thanks for reminding me about that scene. The dialogue is spot-on about parenthood. Hope things went well for you and your wife with the first kid.

Posted by: el kabong on February 20, 2004 1:02 PM

I haven't seen the movie. I will now add the word yet to the end of that sentence. I haven't seen the movie yet.

What I will say is that your review was one of the most beautiful movie reviews I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

And about the squirrely, all the good luck and happiness in the world. The one sentence that will sum up your impending arrival: Your life will never be the same again. And I mean that with every way you can possibly imagine.

Posted by: beth on February 20, 2004 4:36 PM

Is there an echo in here?

Posted by: Mrs. Kennedy on February 20, 2004 8:19 PM

Considering that the extras on the Virgin Suicides DVD consisted of half a dozen snapshots Sofia took on the set, and a "making of" "documentary" shot by her mother ("What's it like working with my daughter on her first film?"), a barebones DVD for Lost in Translation is probably a good thing.

By the way, I interviewed Sofia before the movie came out. http://greg.org/sofia_coppola_interview.html.
It's funny. Not Defective Yeti Funny, but funny.

Posted by: greg.org on February 21, 2004 7:55 PM

Just saw this movie recently myself, and I can't recommend it.

Sure, it does a great job making you feel that you are in Japan... but you know, when you are filming in Japan, that's not a major accomplishment.

And does the world need another movie about a 56-year-old man hooking up with a 22-year-old woman? I think not.

The only thing that saves the movie is Bill Murray, who has proven again that he is the most eminently watchable, empathetic actor in the last 20 years.

Take Bill out of this flick, and you're left with pretty much nothing, I'm sorry to say.

Posted by: The Lemon Guy on February 21, 2004 7:56 PM

God, what is up with you people? How many of you are Asian anyway? I'm not either, but thanks to some Asian friends who clued me in after I too said I liked it, I now realize: that is one racist movie. It's like so MANY Hollywood movies that use black characters off on the side somewhere, SOLELY for the purpose of highlighting or contrasting with something about the white characters on center stage.

Yes, the tone is powerful, but think about it--how much of that tone depends on a dehumanized, alienating, "aren't-those-Japanese-some-funky, abnormal-people" presence? Set this movie in Europe with those same two white folks and it's dis"orienting" tone wouldn't work, would it? And don't tell me that dopey, irony-free lounge singer who's not Japanese somehow offsets this subtle racism.

Wake up, please. Orientals are rugs, not people.

Posted by: Poin D on February 21, 2004 9:56 PM

I'm having a hard time seeing how "Lost in Translation" is racist. It is fundamentally about the isolation of being in a culture that you don't really understand, which is an experience common to most foriegn travelers. (I spent six weeks in southeast Asia not long ago, and I know what that's like.) Japan was an ideal setting because it shares certain sensibilities with the West--a capitalist base and love of pop culture--while retaining the fundamental mystery (from the American view) of the far East. Of course the movie wouldn't have worked so well in Europe, not because the premise is racist, but because Europe is too like America to provoke the deep sense of dislocation that comes when you are visiting someplace where you can't even begin to read the language, much less understand it. Height and coloration differences highlight the sense of being an outsider.

The Japanese characters in LIT aren't "off on the side somewhere." They are right in the middle, at home in the bustle of Tokyo. It's the American characters who are off on the side, but the camera is there with them. Not only is this not a racist film, it's a film that provokes empathy with the experience of being an outsider or a newcomer. Somehow I bet that if it were about recent Asian visitors to the United States feeling jet-lagged and confused by American culture, no one would think to consider it racist. But in this case, the PC Patrol seem to believe that to find a nation's culture confusing is to deem it citizens inferior. That is a stand the movie itself does not take.

Posted by: MelancholyPlatypus on February 22, 2004 1:19 AM

I couldn't agree with MelancholyPlatypus more. In no way is this movie racist. Instead, it is quite accurate in its portrayal of the conflicting emotions of confusion, isolation, frustration and excitement that one feels in such a situation. The Japanese always remain foreign to the characters because they always are. The separation one feels in such a foreign country, especially, as MP pointed out, because of its unique blend of western appetites, is spot on. Having lived in China for six months I can relate to every scene in this movie that deals with the interaction of the western characters to the Japanese ones. Not only that, but I also can relate to the unique seduction of such an atmosphere--such a potent combination of love and hate.

Furthermore, I would never say that this movie is about a 56 year old man hooking up with a 22 year old woman. This simply is not what happened in the movie. I don't know what movie The Lemon Guy was watching. . . The relationship between Murray's and Johannsen's characters is something quite unique--obviously sensual, it never falls into the cliche'd categories for male and female relationships. It exists in a delightful tension between consumation and evasion that remains fresh and fun throughout.

I've seen the movie twice in the theater and loved it both times. Quite frankly there's not anything one can say against the movie. One of my new favorites. I also give it the vote for number one.

Posted by: gooldenwending on February 22, 2004 3:08 AM

Before you dismiss something as "PC," why not listen more sincerely and respectfully to opinions expressed by people who occupy other modes of being than your own? Before you decide such a movie is racist or not, ask several East Asians or Asian Americans who've seen it. (And don't come back after talking to ONE; of course some such people can overlook the film's cartoonish portrayals of people like themselves).

MelancholyPlatypus and gooldenwending sound like a like of nice white folks I know: "Those people saying that thing is racist, what are they talking about? It doesn't seem racist to ME, therefore it's not. Now scurry along with your biased, PC views, and come back when I want you to be 'mysterious,' 'exotic,' or if you're black, a good singer and dancer." Such nice white folks are really saying,
"You're not white like me, so you're not as objective as me." Reminds me of the people who think racist "Indian" sports mascots "honor" Native Americans.

Again, before you decide such a movie is racist or not, ask several Asians or Asian Americans who've seen it. Or better yet, go to this web site, set up precisely to protest the racism in this one movie:


The group that put this site together "feels that the film dehumanizes the Japanese people by portraying them as a collection of shallow stereotypes who are treated with disregard and disdain. The film has no meaningful Japanese roles, nor is there any significant dialogue between the main characters and the Japanese. Such portrayals perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudes that are harmful to Asian Americans in the United States where a significant minority of Americans already have negative attitudes towards Asian Americans."

Posted by: Poin D on February 22, 2004 7:23 AM

I totally agree. LiT was clearly racist. The very two-dimensional Japanese characters are there only to provide the Western leads with something to guffaw at. "Aren't thow Japanese kooky?" was one of the main subtexts of this film. If the director had any interest in making a less overtly racist movie she could have given the Japanese characters an ounce of humanity. Instead we see them through the eyes of two xenophobes.

Some of the chorus here contend that the film does a good job of making the lead characters empathetic. My reaction was nothing of the kind. I found them supremely annoying and abrasive. Some of their actions harken back to the caricature of the Ugly American. They come in to a foreign country without bothing to learn anything about it. If they'd bothered to read a bit about the culture or history of the country perhaps some of the things they saw would have made more sense. And maybe if they bothered to read a tourbook they could go somewhere interesting instead of sitting in their hotel rooms all day. Talk about xenophobia!

The girl did go to see some traditional ceremony, but we are shown no insight in to it either... it's just another "weird" thing that the Japanese do.

And I couldn't disagree more with people who claim this movie had anything in the least bit intelligent about it. A pathetic and pretentious attempt at giving the pose of intellectualism was having the girl be a philosophy major. What a joke! She hardly ever even opens up her mouth. Her role is to be a bimbo, as the opening credits showing her panty-cladd ass amply demonstrate. We have nearly no idea what she thinks, and the few indications point to her being a complete airhead. Fortunately she had a foil in the blonde, next to which she could seem less stupid. But, otherwise, what does she say? It all ammounts to, "Bill Murray, you're so cool! How does it feel to be so old?"

And Bill Murray's platitudes about having children?! I can't believe you find such shallow observations that one day kids grow up and "they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life" as somehow profound! This is the stuff of Hallmark cards and it makes me want to vomit over its sacchrine, overly sentimental, fakeness.

I have to grant one thing to Bill Murray: he plays the washed-out actor to a T, as that's exactly what he is.

I haven't had the misfortune of suffering through such overhyped tripe since Lord of the Rings.

Posted by: fgwa on February 23, 2004 2:07 AM

The film is mildly racist in the sense that its content looks at cultural disparity from the outsider's point of view. This may appear racist but the concentration is mostly placed on the dislocated sensation and the social isolation that come from being placed in a foreign atmosphere.

There are moments where linguistic and physical differences are the focus and these are where there is justification in the claim that the film is racist. However I would argue that this merely demonstrates a level of racism within the central character. The character is a jetlagged, middle-aged man whose tolerance, acceptance and exposure to something outside of his own cultural norm are somewhat limited. The tired exasperation he displays is a signature of the generation he belongs to when exposed to anything new (including developments of culture within his own country). It simply throws into sharp relief that which he feels already (i.e. he is in some way alone before he even gets to Japan).

In contrast to this is the female lead, who has visited the country before and has cultivated the beginnings of a social group comprising inhabitants of the country. Her character, rather than used to focus on the cultural differences, is portrayed as tired and isolated by virtue of the place she finds herself in through her personal life. She explores the city and finds a vibrant culture, which she is seldom at odds with and which, in her isolation, is solace from the developing feeling that she is married to a stranger.

On the surface you could see a “look at the Japanese, aren’t they crazy” film. The examples provided on the lost in racism site tend to support my above theory that it is the main character who is racist and not necessarily the film itself.

I think the matter of racism within western culture does need addressing. However I don’t think the film provides a negative depiction of a foreign culture, it just shows that there are differences.

Posted by: Floyd on February 23, 2004 6:20 AM

Saw "Lost In Translation" over the weekend. It was a good movie that had some strong moments.

There was an awful lot of spare, quiet scenes that were obviously intended to heighten the audience's sense of lonliness/alienation-- in order to identify with the lead characters. It also reminded me of Al Pacino's character in Insomnia, but it felt a bit overdone here. I think Copola shows a great deal promise, but she hasn't peaked yet.

A few weeks ago I saw "In America" and I was moved by it. I suppose someone will point out that it's racist against immigrants, but overall I thought it was a more successful movie (& screenplay) than LIT.

Posted by: Edoc on February 23, 2004 6:55 AM

Although I haven't seen it the movie sounds mature enough to compare favorably with "The Cooler" (new movie with William Macy).

Might Hollywood actually be making good movies that appeal to mature audiences? This surprises me.

Anyway, it sounds like both "Lost in Translation" and "The Cooler" offer the same benefit of doing the things that Indie films do well without losing the magic and optimistism of Holywood-style "deus ex machina"-engineered scenes and endings.

Look forward to seeing it.

Posted by: Tim on February 23, 2004 10:38 AM

After hearing about this film for several months from friends and co-workers, I finally had a chance to see it this weekend on an airplane return trip from Europe. I fully expected to be disappointed.

Instead I found myself replaying the movie over and over (it was a 7 1/2 flight so I had a few chances!) not able to resist its subtle, yet powerful allure.

As a 40 year-old male with 3 children under age 7, I simply can not believe this film was written and directed by a 30-something year old female. Sofia Coppola has perfectly captured the psychology of the male mid-life crisis. She writes about the struggle between the responsibilities of a family and the desire for connectedness as someone who understands it from experience. And her willingness to leave the chaos unresolved (at least by Hollywood standards), is true perfection.

Go see it.

Posted by: David on February 23, 2004 11:38 AM

Some might think it's a lie, some might actually experienced what Bill gone through at Japan.
Some might think this movie is pretentious, some actually had something reflected in the movie.
Some love it and some love it.
But I personally think Sofia did a great job at it. Wonderful.

Posted by: vlad on February 23, 2004 9:57 PM

I don't want to continue my part of the racist/not racist discussion past this post, lest I contribute to turning the DY comments into a free-for-all. So Poin D, you can have the last word, if you want it. I'll just say that for someone concerned about racism to write "MelancholyPlatypus and gooldenwending sound like a like of nice white folks I know..." is really fascinating to me, because it (1) assumes that we are both white and (2) lumps us in with other 'white folks' as having a certain negative trait. The ad hominem argument that follows affords no useful response. Rather than respond to what gooldenwending and I saw in the movie, you categorize us as unable to view the film correctly because of our race--whether LIT is racist or not, that line of argumentation certainly is.

As for the critique that "The film has no meaningful Japanese roles, nor is there any significant dialogue between the main characters and the Japanese," all I can say is that it isn't about the experience of being Japanese in Japan, it's about the experience of being burned-out, jet-lagged, Anglo and confused in Japan. If Murray and Johansen's characters had experienced meaningful relationships with locals, the tension of the movie would have been obliterated. Obviously, many people do experience those relationships, but that's for another film.

Finally, I allow for a possiblity that Poin D may not: that a movie character can act in inappropriate ways without his or her behavior being met with approval by the filmmaker. Yes, Murray's character does act obnoxious and even racist on occasion. I considered those moments to be authentic representations of a has-been actor dealing with his frustration of trying to make a commercial in a foriegn land just to make ends meet. It's not behavior I approve of, or that I would engage in, but it is a realistic part of the story, and I think the audience is meant to acknowledge that such moments are bad reactions to a frustrating situation.

If however, you believe that anything a character does the storyteller inherently agrees with, then yep, it's a racist movie.

Enough from me.

Posted by: MelancholyPlatypus on February 23, 2004 10:47 PM

Thanks MP, I don't want the "last word," though I do appreciate the chance to respond to what you wrote. First, a caveat, or something like one--we seem to be reaching the limits of a blog's comment section in terms of ability to communicate back and forth effectively on a complex issue.

That said, I can still say that you misinterpreted my comments. You wrote, "I'll just say that for someone concerned about racism to write 'MelancholyPlatypus and gooldenwending sound like a like of nice white folks I know...' is really fascinating to me, because it (1) assumes that we are both white and (2) lumps us in with other 'white folks' as having a certain negative trait. . . . Rather than respond to what gooldenwending and I saw in the movie, you categorize us as unable to view the film correctly because of our race--whether LIT is racist or not, that line of argumentation certainly is."

No, my comment doesn't (1) assume you're both white--it assumes you sound "like a lot of nice white folks I know," as I said, and not like ALL white folks. So, (2) that comment does not lump you in with (all?) other white folks, only with some, and only in the sense that you sound like some. I have no idea if you're white, and I didn't assume then that you are.

On your other point, I and others are not so concerned with the racist acts or apparent thoughts of Murray's character. It's the film itself that irks, because it errs in not presenting even marginally well-rounded, and thus fully human, characters for the two white ones at the center to interact with. The Japanese characters presented for viewers are instead consistently cartoonish, regardless of how the jet-lagged whites react or interact with them. Also, what it does present as both positive and Japanese is "traditional" Japanese (flower arranging class, Buddhist temple, etc.), while contemporary Japan is presented as a bizarre, supposedly funny imitation of American culture.

In this sense, the film invites middle-class, white, hetero viewers in, by inviting them to identify with the central characters, and it thereby shuts others out. If whites (like me) accept that invitation, perhaps because (like me) they've lived in "the Orient," then they're invited to suspend any tendencies they might have to grant full humanity to Asian people, cinematically projected or otherwise present. I regret that I at first fell into that "Orientalist" fantasy (a la Edward Said), until, as I said, some Asian friends woke me up.

Posted by: Poin D on February 24, 2004 7:51 PM

Why does the movie have to have well-developed Asian characters? It's not about Asian people, it's about two white Americans questioning where they are in life and feeling a little lost in the process. The alienation one feels when in a foreign country is the perfect symbol for this feeling.

As for charges of Orientalism, I don't buy that, as anything foreign is exotic. America is VERY exotic to non-Western people, just as Japan (and particulary Tokyo) is exotic to Westerners. Coppola used Tokyo as a place where the two main characters are forced to examine themselves without the benefit of familiar surroundings.

But it's all about how an individual feels, and I can appreciate that. If you felt offended by the movie, then it was racist.

For you.

Posted by: el kabong on February 25, 2004 4:44 PM

I have to admit that reading back over my post I was a bit over-zealous, but I think that was a response to the criticism of what I thought was a really great movie. And, the question of racism never once entered my mind while watching it, though I at least can see the argument now. Not that I agree with it.

In response. I was recently sitting with a group of Japanese people (that is, from Japan and here on exchange) where I live. I'm guessing there were between 8 and 12 of them in all, around 6 of whom had seen the movie. I asked them if they thought that the movie was racist. Not only did none of them think so, but each one of them who had seen it really enjoyed it. This was before I read Poin D's challenge to ask some East Asians, but I'm glad I came back with more than one. Of course, this is by no means representative, but telling nonetheless.

So many movies concentrate on two central characters to the almost total exclusion of others. . . What conclusion are we to draw from this? A good parallel would perhaps be Wang Kar Wai's Happy Together where the plot centers almost wholly around two Chinese men living together in Argentina. Almost the only shots we get of non-Chinese people that I can think of are of interactions in stores, a lounge where there's tango dancing, and old, overweight people yelling at the tenants in the apartment where the Chinese men live. Are we to say that this movie is racist because it provides a "flat" representation of Argentinians? Something like: "Argentinians are always represented in movies as either being loud and obese or as elegant tango dancers. Where's the common Argentinian? Why aren't we provided with a dynamic and realistic portrait of them in world cinema?" To me this sounds ridiculous. I haven't heard any sort of comment like this about the movie either. Perhaps since both of these cultures would perhaps seem the "minority" to us we aren't so quick to raise the racist flag. Again, had it been two Americans in Argentina I think perhaps that question would have been raised. Another telling point.

But let's face it. The movie wasn't about Argentinians but rather about the relationship between these two homosexual Chinese men IN Argentina. Again, it's an experience of two people at the margins of a society--culturally, linguistically, racially. They don't truly interact with the culture on its own terms because it is such a foreign thing to them (surely anyone who has travelled to radically different cultures can relate), just like a white person is never going to be fully integrated into a Far Eastern culture, no matter how long they've lived there, much less after only a week. I think we can talk about these things and present these sorts of situations without having to label them as racist.

Call me nice white folk if you must. I still don't think the movie was racist.

Posted by: gooldenwending on February 25, 2004 8:59 PM

The acting was good, the DP did a good job and made pretty pictures, but the reason why LiT is not the end-all be-all film is that the story isn't worth being told. "Whisper thin plot" is an understatement!

And the claims that it's racist are almost funnier than the movie as a whole.

Posted by: Bill on February 27, 2004 4:45 AM

Did anyone else think that Charlotte is pregnant and in denial about it?

Posted by: Catherine on February 28, 2004 2:48 PM

About the racism thread...
I think it's funny that you're using the opinion of "asians" to label this movie as racist. Indeed, it is not about asians. It is about specific asians: japanese people.
If you want to make a point about orientals, then you should realize that asian is also a very blind category...pc as it may be.
I mean, why ask asian americans or "east asians" at all? I'd say a large portion of them know nothing about japanese culture, mainly because a large portion of them are not japanese.
I live in Japan right now, so I have yet to see the movie. But a friend who lived here for 2 years said it was the most true to life movie he'd seen. You can bet your life I'll be watching it as soon as I can get my hands on it.
The director was trying to recreate the feeling of being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. You _have_ to use stereotypes in such a situation because that's how a person in a foreign country deals with their experiences.
Furthermore, as I understand it, there were real-live japanese people in the movie, don't you think they'd have said something if they were offended? Japanese people may be indirect, but they are not without pride.
Many of the stereotypes listed in these posts and on the website are stereotypes that japanese people use to characterize themselves!
As for the "funny imitation of American culture" comment...well, you go to Amerika village in Osaka and tell me it isn't. Or how's about Christmas or Valentine's Day here? Being an american in Japan who doesn't speak much japanese (though I am studying), I can tell you that my experiences here have ranged from incredibly sweet and endearing to holy hell what is wrong with you people?! Feeling that way doesn't make me a racist, but it sure identifies me as a foreigner with culture shock.
The day we become afraid to address these feelings in a real and meaningful way is the day we turn our back on true cultural understanding.

Posted by: eleutheria on March 2, 2004 4:40 AM

Regarding Charlotte being pregnant.... I didn't see it. Wouldn't a Yale-grad know enough to stop drinking? She seemed pretty psyched to pop open the champagne, and she ordered the Vodka-tonic without hesitiation .... Am I missing something?

Posted by: David on March 11, 2004 11:23 AM

1st congrats on the newby.
2nd that "Lost in..."movie was about par with watching paint dry!Seriously,I wanted my money back.
Of course my personal all time cinema favorite is "Repo Man".Because"The life of a repo man is always intense"
Now that you are a married man with children,I suggest "21 Grams" is in order.Cut the fluff and this should be in that top 5. Since seeing this flick,my life has been paralyzed by fear.Tee Hee

Posted by: Vic on March 19, 2004 3:05 AM

Months after the review is posted and weeks after I saw the film, i have to add a little anecdote of my own to this... At least what I read.

Chris Rock loves this movie specifically because he likens this film to a black man living in suburbia.,... THe culture clash and what not.

I absolutely loved the film while my parents absolutely hated it. "NOthing hapens". Yeah? That's life.

Posted by: John F on April 6, 2004 11:34 PM