I recently came upon Sofia Coppola’s comedy called On the Rocks, starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. I loved Bill Murray’s acting and the general vibe of the movie. Murray had a restrained yet larger-than-life demeanour, whereas Rashida Jones perfected the role of the understudy who enjoyed time with her father yet was more sensible in her actions. The movie was fast-paced, had snappy cuts and an overall jazzy atmosphere. Watching this led me to the original Coppola-Murray collaboration, Lost in Translation and I think it is safe to say that what I got was entirely different from what I expected.
The movie is about two people, Bob Harris, played by the brilliant Bill Murray, and Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, from two very different backgrounds stuck in a very strange city (Tokyo). One is undergoing a mid-life crisis whereas the other is newly graduated and confused about what she wants from life. They do not understand the language or the culture and cannot talk to anyone. They long for some sort of companionship among the loneliness that they find themselves facing and try to look for that within each other. Thus begins one of the most beautiful relationships in film history. We see our two protagonists roam around Tokyo and have fun in the city that they once found strange but now are completely comfortable in because they finally have someone to communicate with, a translator for their thoughts.
In Lost in Translation, Coppola managed to weave a beautiful story which is based mostly around the theme of loneliness. Bob is a veteran actor in a strained marriage. Hints of a fading relationship with his child are also shown, as he forgets her birthday. He’s not inspired by his work anymore and does whiskey commercials in foreign countries for money and to get away from his family. Charlotte is a young woman who has recently graduated and married a photographer. She tags along with her husband on photoshoots to different parts of the world where he leaves her alone when he works. This makes her feel alone most of the time. On top of that, she also feels confused about what she wants from life and that scares her.
At first we assume the title is meant to be an indicator of their lack of communication with people in a foreign country but we soon see that this gap extends to their loved ones too. We see this in Charlotte’s phone call with her friend where she can’t quite tell her friend what’s wrong. We see it in Bob’s phone call with his wife while in the tub; he faces a similar issue and so starts talking about how he doesn’t want pasta. We realize what the two really need is a translator for their thoughts. Someone who understands their problems. They find that someone in each other.
While she did create a very unconventional pairing, Coppola managed to ground the story in reality. Throughout the story both our characters know that while they can have their moments with each other, they can’t possibly stay together forever however attached they might feel to one another. Bob knows he’s married and can’t possibly be with someone 20 years younger than him. Charlotte too has similar feelings. We see this most notably in the scene where our pair stare at each other, creating a moment of intense sexual tension, and then quickly turn and look at the TV with a feeling of content resignation. Also, when Charlotte catches Bob with the hotel singer, she knows she has no right to be angry (even though she can’t help but show it) because they aren’t meant to be together. We too, as viewers, understand this is essentially a doomed romance, but that doesn’t make our hearts ache any lesser.
Bill Murray was brilliant in the movie. He exercised a kind of restraint, something similar to what we see in Pankaj Tripathi’s performances. It was exactly what Coppola would have wanted from him, which explains why she chose to cast him without an audition. Murray gave us so much by providing us with moments of humour at the most unexpected times. On reading the screenplay, I got to know that the ‘For yucks’ line, which he says on being asked why the Japanese choose to switch the Ls and the Rs, was improvised by him. Another famous instance of improvisation was the ending scene, where Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear.
Scarlett Johansson, who was relatively inexperienced at that time, did a brilliant job picking up the pieces and completing a scene with what Bill Murray gave to it. Together they make a very beautiful and organic pair who perfectly complement each other in both their background and general behaviour.
Despite the very depressing theme, Coppola managed to include moments of humour, which hit us much more than they should have purely because of the timing. For example, the first whiskey commercial scene where the director’s passionate ramblings are translated into very concise and specific instructions by the translator, leaving both us and Bob Harris confused. While Coppola used the quirks of the Japanese English as a source of humour freely, she did so in a way that didn’t offend or caricaturise the Japanese people. She attempted to portray the Japanese people as realistically as possible. This is mostly due to her understanding of Japanese culture from her frequent trips to Japan.
Cinematographer Lance Acord, who also worked on Being John Malkovich, managed to portray Coppola’s message using his lens. He very artfully used a combination of close-up shots and wide-angle shots with people walking around our protagonists to show their loneliness. Brian Reitzell, who has now become a frequent collaborator with Coppola, pieced together a soundtrack that almost perfectly captured the mood of the movie using indie and alternative rock. The soundtrack lent a very dreamy and trancelike vibe to the movie, which added to the general aesthetic of the whole movie. Coupled with the beautiful shots of Tokyo (taken using natural lighting), it added an almost electric energy to the movie and made our hearts beat faster as we watched on.
In Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola managed to create the quintessential doomed romance, aided by the stellar performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and the sublime combination of thoughtful shots and an ethereal soundscape. The movie seemed slightly plotless in the sense that it didn’t have a conflict or a defined goal per se. Even at the end we don’t have a proper conclusion. We don’t know what will happen or what all this meant for our protagonists. But that’s not what this movie is about. In this movie the viewer is expected to just sit back and enjoy the moments as they pass as well as feel for the central characters as we gain a very intimate insight into their lives. I enjoyed this movie thoroughly and would recommend it to everyone.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.