The joke's on them: Why can't the protagonists of Lost in Translation see what's around them?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 September 2003)

Bob and Charlotte, hero and heroine of the current film Lost in Translation, differ in many ways but appear equally intent on giving Western civilization a bad name. They find themselves in Tokyo, they are unhappy for various private reasons, and in their misery they decide that Japan is unworthy of their attention. They are alienated from their surroundings, but it's a self-imposed alienation. Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) live in cramped emotional boxes of their own construction. They're so self-obsessed that even the most genial filmgoer may want to reach out and slap them around a little.

They don't know anything about Japan, which is understandable, and they don't want to know anything about it, which is unforgivable. They illustrate an old joke. Question: "What's the difference between ignorance and indifference?" Answer: "I don't know and I don't care." Bob and Charlotte don't know, don't care, and like it that way. Lost in Translation expresses a distasteful racism through romantic comedy. It says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin.

The writer-director, Sofia Coppola, leads us through one of those he's-old-enough-to-be-her-dad flirtations: Man in mid-life crisis meets, accidentally, twentysomething woman suffering from delayed adolescent angst. She looks so young that she transforms Murray, who is 52, into an antique; the cinematographer helps out by highlighting his pockmarks in a way that adds easily another five years.

Once a renowned movie star, Bob doesn't make many movies anymore. He's running out the clock with money-grubbing gigs while aware (so he says) that he should "be doing a play somewhere." But he wants to keep living like a movie star, which is why he's in Tokyo to make US$2-million appearing in commercials. He's pitching for Suntory, a real Japanese whisky (can they be investors in the film?). Like many Japanese companies, Suntory hires American stars to do ads that would mortify them if shown in the United States. (The first billboard I noticed in Tokyo, many years ago, had Paul Newman grinning like a monkey while shilling for some product.)

Bob's stuck in a no-longer-delightful marriage but insists he loves his children, even though he forgets his son's birthday. Charlotte has been married for two years to a show-business photographer in hysterical pursuit of his career.

He's brought her to Tokyo on a working trip but obviously finds her a burden. She claims, "I don't know who I married," which is what classy women say instead of something common like "I married a jerk."

Tokyo overwhelms Bob and Charlotte. There's too much neon, too many crowds -- and, above all, too many people who insist on speaking nothing but Japanese. Even Japanese delicacies, like Kobe beef, only heighten their ennui. Bob and Charlotte go into a passive-aggressive cultural sulk. They decide everything bores them or, at best, mildly amuses them. Lost in Translation will appeal to all those who find enduring humour in the inability of Japanese to pronounce "r" and "l." It's a film that prides itself on its own provincialism.

In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote the original account of how infuriating the non-American world looks to Americans. But while he found comedy in everything from the pyramids to Michelangelo, he made his narrow-minded fellow Americans central to the joke. Coppola misses this half of the story. She doesn't understand that she's depicting two supreme ignoramuses. Her heroine, Charlotte, has a degree from Yale in philosophy but apparently doesn't own a book. Neither, for that matter, does Bob. All they have to sustain them (and fuel their conversation) is sadness.

They're jet-lagged and sleep-deprived (funny that this would surprise a movie star) and spend a lot of time in their hotel rooms, surfing through incomprehensible TV shows. (There's one delightful moment when Bob comes upon his younger self, dubbed into Japanese, playing opposite a chimp in what might be a remake of that great Ronald Reagan vehicle Bedtime for Bonzo.)

Murray tries to inject some life into this story of emotional numbness by deploying an infinite variety of deadpan stares, each more contemptuous than the last. These are all historically grounded in the art of Edgar Kennedy (1890-1948), master of the slow burn, who made 311 movies and conveyed profound annoyance every time he showed up. Coppola's direction seems at times to imitate Murray's inert stare. She paces her story so ponderously that sometimes it comes to a dead halt, as when Charlotte catches a train for Kyoto, goes temple touring, glimpses a Shinto wedding and turns the film into a travelogue.

Curiously, Coppola opens Lost in Translation with a long, lingering shot of a woman's buttocks in transparent panties. As the work of a woman director, it looks like a rebuttal of several hundred feminist articles attacking the exploitation of women in popular culture by "the male gaze." David Edelstein of Slate magazine, one of the film's many admirers, found this quasi-pornographic sequence disquieting. He called it "a head-scratcher" and decided it was probably intended to, uh, indicate that Coppola, uh, wants us to see the film as the vaguely erotic dream of an alienated young woman. Either that or she wants to excite the audience.

Donald Richie, a great critic of Japanese movies and a brilliant commentator on Japan, was asked in a recent interview why he's stayed in Tokyo for 52 years. He answered: "Everything is so interesting. Every day you wake up and think, 'What am I gonna learn today?' " Moving from America to Japan, he said, opens your eyes, and you can never shut them again. Coppola, on the other hand, finds it more amusing to smile approvingly on two Westerners whose eyes remain permanently closed. Richie says intelligent foreigners realize Japan is a mirror: You look at yourself in Japan and perhaps know yourself better. But that process requires imagination and an interest in understanding both inner and outer worlds. "The joys of comprehension are the only true joys there are," Richie claims. Maybe they don't teach that at Yale anymore. In any case, it's the opposite of what Lost in Translation wants to tell us.

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