Director: Sofia Coppola|
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Anna Faris, Giovanni Ribisi, Fumihiro Hayashi
Duration: 105 minutes
Tom Cruise likes to focus. Allegedly there are few things finer than a spot of focusing but then, we're told, he also harbours a proclivity for commitment. There's nothing wrong with this, but Mr Cruise is now no less a champion of honour and duty and is more eager than ever for you to know. So if you are keen on focusing and/or commitment yet haven't more than a couple of hours to engorge yourself with a spot of Honour, Courage, Concentration and Focusing (again) and still haven't quite mastered the technique then The Last Samurai may well be the film for you. If you prefer your East-meets-West movie to provide some sense to unsmother the sentiment, it may be wiser to spend the week's peanuts on Lost In Translation, which amply provides anyone's quota of cultural confusion but holds back on passing judgement on how or why such cultural discrepancies occur.
Where The Last Samurai spares no attempt to let you know who can own up to the superior culture, Coppola's quieter epic dresses Tokyo in the suit of a civilised circus and refuses neither to complement nor condemn it, using the city only as a stage where we can observe two humans who have a chance to regain themselves.
The scenario is hardly groundbreaking and the plot, in the twists-and-drama sense, doesn't exist. Instead there are two principal characters, both already if not altogether successfully married, who get to know each other and so rediscover themselves. Bill Murray excels as Bob Harris, the washed-up Hollywood export whose wife is oblivious to his mid-life crisis, and the 25-year-old Charlotte is portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, some seven years junior of her character, who after gracing the camera with her posterior in pink pants pulls off the persona with an enticingly husky voice, and thus automatically emasculates her snapper husband, an excruciatingly camp Giovanni Ribisi.
Bob and Charlotte are not on holiday, but their work in Japan is that of insomnia. Coppola sets them together in the pre-dawn underbelly of the Tokyo Hyatt where Murray's soft sarcasm drips through his fatigue and Johansson provides an earthy lust of youth that the older actor seems to have forgotten existed. The film doesn't suggest that he's the adulterating sort, and his phone conversations to his wife hint that he has not lost patience with the idea of family, but rather lost interest in the idea of himself. Coppola explores the dialogue within their own minds, where Bob and Charlotte are forced to revaluate their marriages as the keys to their satisfaction. She takes no easy routes, and the two don't rush to conform to their heart or their heads: marriage for them is a refreshingly serious commodity. This friction between short-term escape and introspective repair is explored with vital acuity, revealing little but suggesting much.
The script scores most in its intriguing subtleties, the refusal to bend to Hollywood logic (love must be shown through lust, quick pleasures overrule commitments etc.) and its careful attention to cultural detail, that has created enough moments of aching hilarity to guarantee any interest in the more drawn-out moments. The approach to pacing is considered and deliberate; it's true to Coppola's impressive technique that even the sections of turgid boredom are intended. She implies tedium by forcing it on the camera, and perhaps more is owed to Richard Linklater's Waking Life than to French arthouse flicks for her success here. The direction of the actors is sympathetic and considerate, with Murray and Johansson seemingly effortless in their lines. The sense of irony that pervades Harris' career is not an accident, either: Sean Connery has already received his share of flack for endorsing Japanese whiskey (he's since changed loyalties back to scotch) and Harris is not unaware of his shame in plugging liquor for foreign television.
However the film's genius isn't displayed through his emulation into Orson Welles as he descends into artistic death, but in that the act of career-end blues is handled with such deft candour. The photoshoot scene is a triumph, and walks over any suggestion of racial stereotyping in portraying the Japanese artists no less annoying than their Western counterparts but with the additional flavour of a second-hand aesthetic. The director's language is quaint, his attitude embarrassing - it is this ease of speech that made The Office such a sensation. Murray's monotone rejoinders are, in the wake of such an asserted tirade, an achievement in themselves.
There is hardly a shortage of slick melodramas being pumped out of Los Angeles, and many possess a finesse wholly lacking in this film, but this absence of gloss results in a sense of honesty which may be one of its finer coups. The cinema verité feel is the chief contributor: high-contrast and stark scenery, large periods without music, the minimal "plot" dialogue overshadowed by embarrassing conversations that have no bearing on the drama but drive the lavish characterisation. This retrospective glance might also have contributed to the director's allergy to camera stands, which after a short while can feel a little forced even before the successive handheld shots give rise to apathy before any ensuing nausea.
Lost In Translation is only Sofia Coppola's second full-length film and it's a little early to be talking of masterpieces but, ignoring the adage of giants and their shoulders, she has created a stunning retort to critics who wrote off The Virgin Suicides as the work of others. There's always talk of dynasties in the film world, and Mrs Spike Jonze has so far been able to rely on an admirable lineage - few directors' fathers own a production company (American Zoetrope has a large stake in Translation's success) and few husbands are that keen on explaining the intricacies of their work - yet her portfolio is frighteningly thin for such an achievement. Perhaps she approached her script with slight intentions and merely employed a hugely talented team with an open brief.
The recipe to Translation couldn't be simpler: old man, young woman, displace both in urban jungle, add a little need for life and a pinch of despair, and let simmer on high pressure. Most importantly, don't touch whilst cooking - only observe as the ingredients distil. There are more proactive methods, and there have been more heroic attempts at filmmaking, and these carry different rewards, but subtlety can shout just as loudly of honour and commitment. For this it's doubtful whether hobbits, earthquakes, or hoards of charging Samurai can impart quite such a bite of reality. They play, you watch, no confusion and the barest pretence.
Coppola has fashioned a panegyric for truth, and in viewing as fashioning, it requires a little patience rather than concentration. No-one needs to prove their courage or commitment. Tom Cruise may take note. There is, undeniably, nothing wrong with focusing. But it can get a little tiring.
DVD Extras: Deleted scenes. Behind the scenes. A conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola. Trailer. Kevin Shields music video City Girl.