Tuesday, September 30, 2003

lost & found

my review, which will probably appear under some hideous title in the phoenix on thursday of "Lost in Translation":
The bourgeoning subculture of fan fiction pairs two romantically-unaffiliated fictional characters and creates for them a story of their own. The internet overflows with fan fiction about Harry&Hermione from Harry Potter, Xena&Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, and various Star Trek captains with each other.

Whether consciously or not, what Sofia Coppola has created in her new film Lost in Translation is a piece of fan fiction that ingeniously pairs Bill Murray�s character, Herman Blume, from Rushmore, with Scarlet Johansson�s character, Rebecca, from Ghost World.

Devising a fantastical erotic scenario for those two characters would be untrue to both. Instead Coppola simply places them in the same swanky Tokyo hotel. Their mutual sense of alienation, coupled with insomnia, is enough to guarantee that Murray and Johansson will meet and recognize the other as a kindred spirit.

Murray�s character, an aging movie star, is in Japan to earn $2 million shooting whiskey commercials. Johansson�s, a 22 year old Yale grad, is in Japan accompanying her husband, a photographer, who is shooting movie stars.

Both spend their copious unstructured time wandering around the hotel or the city alone � and then, once they meet, together. It is in this aspect of the film particularly that Coppola reveals herself as a skillful director. Whether Johansson is examining Tokyo�s video arcades and high tech billboards, or temples and a flower-arranging class, Coppola herself maintains the same calm pace.

The effect produces more than a consistency of tone. Coppola captures vividly what is like not to be in Tokyo, but to be an American tourist in Tokyo. To view the city at arm�s length, fascinated by the details and equally unwilling to attempt to delve beneath the surface.

Neither Murray nor Johansson speaks Japanese. Much of the film�s humor derives from simple yet effective sight gags (Murray in a packed elevator of Japanese business men, standing a head taller than the rest of them) and typical cultural miscommunications. Without being offensive, the film manages to be surprisingly funny as well as, eventually, touching.

The relationship that develops between Murray and Johansson is what allows both to transcend the limits of their original Rushmore/ Ghost World characters. That relationship feels far more believable and, at the same time, more complex and unique, than what Hollywood usually comes up with.

Naturally, since they are Man and Woman, and even more so because as individuals they are so similar, sexual tension creeps into the story. At no point does it disappear, but, refreshingly, at no point does it take over. It becomes just another layer of their many-layered friendship.

Bill Murray deserves special praise for elevating wry, truly funny disaffection to an art form. If you couldn�t tell from Groundhog Day or if you thought Rushmore was a fluke, his performance here should erase all reasonable doubt: the man has talent.

Coppola�s previous film, The Virgin Suicides, while generally well-regarded, was also self-indulgent and slow. At moments, Lost in Translation feels like it could use some tough love editing. But as a whole it succeeds where Virgin Suicides failed, managing to be a thought-provoking, visually remarkable mood piece. The risks she takes here, such as prioritizing character over plot, pay off: they establish her as an artist as well as one of the most successful practitioners of fan fiction to date.

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