Lost in Translation

“Sleepless in Tokyo” would have been the obvious title for Lost in Translation, but there is more to the film than being bored in the antiseptic Park Hyatt Hotel with a sweeping view of Japan’s capital city. The plot develops at two levels that continually intersect. One is about the intensity of Japanese culture, the other about two sensitive Americans who stay at the same hotel and find solace together. Fiftysomething actor Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) arrives from Los Angeles jetlagged one evening and is greeted by a polite entourage, who in turn give him gifts and the key to his hotel room. Although exhausted from the trip, he does not catch up on his sleep during the entire week, due in part to stupid telephone calls from his wife at 4 a.m. He is to make $2 million for endorsing Suntory whiskey, and he later appears live on a talk show hosted by a foppish Japanese interviewer. Twentysomething Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson), who has just graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Yale, is accompanying her husband John (played by Giovanni Ribisi). John, also from Los Angeles, has been hired to do camera shoots, leaving her alone and bored. Eventually the two meet in the cocktail lounge of the hotel, converse, go on excursions around town together, but maintain a platonic relationship. Charlotte realizes that Harris is undergoing a midlife crisis, so she provides a little diversion. Indeed, his wife has so taken over domestic affairs that he feels estranged from the independent life that he once enjoyed. Meanwhile, Harris perceives that Charlotte, who has only been married two years, needs some paternal advice on how to survive in a long-term relationship. Their experience together, thus, is not only mutually therapeutic but throws out good advice to filmviewers in both age cohorts, especially those trapped in marriages that leave them feeling as if they were potted plants. Japan’s culture provides the needed comic relief; although the protagonists make facial antics rather than comments about Japan, filmviewers will quickly figure out what is amusing–from a hotel drapery that opens in the morning as an alarm device to expressionless automatons at pachinko parlors to drunk patrons at a tasteless strip nightclub. Sofia Coppola, the director, obviously found Japan’s idiosyncrasies to be quite comical, but she also takes serious aim at three Hollywood airheads–Charlotte’s workaholic husband, Harris’s home decorating wife, and narcissistic Kelly (played by Anna Faris), a starlet who is also appearing in a Tokyo production of some sort. When Lost in Translation appears in France film, the absurdist theme will produce much laughter from filmviewers. In the United States, the laughter is directed at how the regimentation that afflicts Japanese culture is uncorked in unusual ways. MH

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