When I named my favorite movies of 2003, there was a caveat. “I somehow never got around to seeing Lost In Translation,” I wrote after listing the top five, “but I have a hunch that it might have been up there.”
Once in a great while one of my hunches turns out to be correct — although rarely as resoundingly correct as this one turned out to be. Not only would Lost In Translation have made my Top Five, it would have placed squarely in my Top One.
Indeed, Translation crossed the magical line that divides, in my mind, the very good movies from the great: it left me feeling completely ensorcelled by the time the closing credits rolled. This happens to me from time to time, but only rarely, and only with the most extraordinary of films: the first two Lord of the Rings movies, Memento, How’s Your News and a handful of others in the last few years. In theater the term is “transported“: to be carried away with strong and often intensely pleasant emotion. And the beauty of Translation is such that I not only felt transported emotionally, but physically as well: it was if I was actually visiting Japan.
Set in Tokyo, the whisper-thin plot revolves around Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a washed up action star in town to film a whiskey commercial for two million bucks. Estranged from his wife, resigned to his fate, and unable to get a good night’s sleep, Bob bumbles about his surroundings like a bee in a jar. Meanwhile, in the same hotel, the recently married Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is realizing that her husband of two years is largely a stranger to her. Her spouse is a photographer of rock bands and she has accompanied him to Japan for a shoot. As the husband is slowly drawn into the superficial world of celebrity, Charlotte begins to consider herself as essentially on her own.
Like two somnambulists bumping into one another in the dark, Bob and Charlotte eventually cross paths in the hotel lounge, and the remainder of the movie is about the unusual bond that forms between them. After Charlotte’s husband leaves Tokyo for a weeklong business trip, the two begin spending their sleepless nights together: watching TV, partying with friends, or simply conversing about topics big and small. Befuddled by the local culture, the two rely on one another to stay sane and keep a looming cloud of depression at bay.
The acting in Translation is astounding — or, rather, would have be astounding if both Murray and Johansson weren’t so skilled at making the audience believe that they aren’t acting at all. The scenes of intimacy between the two are so uncannily authentic that, at times, the film feels like a documentary. And every time you think the screenplay is going to take a turn for the predictable, it doesn’t.
I would have loved Translation for these reasons alone, but two other factors put the film into the class of my favorites. First, the sense of dislocation expressed so eloquently by the two leads was hauntingly familiar to me, and recalled to mind my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia. anyone who has ever been stranded in a foreign culture owes it to themselves to see the movie.
But here’s the real reason why this film moved me like few others. The Queen and I had decided to go see our Last Movie Ever as a childless couple on Saturday, and Lost In Translation was our mutual pick. We’d all but forgotten that it was February 14th (expecting a baby to arrive any moment will do that to you) and, knowing nothing of the film, we didn’t realize that it was a romance of sorts, so we sort of stumbled into the perfect Valentine’s Day date by accident. Then, halfway through the film we were treated to this dialog:
Bob: It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.
Charlotte: It’s scary.
Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.
Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.
Bob: Your life, as you know it … is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk … and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.
Standing, as we are, on the precipice of parenthood, this is exactly what we needed to hear.
And this exchange neatly encapsulates the essence of the film: life — and relationships — are hard. But ultimately worth the effort.
If Lost In Translation is still playing at a nearby theater and you haven’t seen it yet, please make an effort to do so. It’s wonderful, wonderful.