Before its release back in 2003, no one quite knew what to expect from Lost in Translation, an indie romantic comedy set in Japan, starring Bill Murray and a then largely unknown 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson. Sofia Coppola had found success a few years earlier with The Virgin Suicides and many were eager to see what she would do as a followup; none more so than Coppola herself, as her marriage to director Spike Jonze and the resulting loneliness she felt became her inspiration for what would end up being an Oscar-winning hit.
The central roles of Charlotte, a lonely grad student, and Bob, an ageing movie star, were written by Coppola who also wrote the latter role specifically for Bill Murray, always a gamble in the movie business. Johansson signed on to the movie with ease, but Murray, legendarily elusive in Hollywood for years, was a far more difficult actor to acquire, with Coppola having to leave what she remembers as “hundreds” of messages on his voicemail before he would return her calls, resulting in a nervous pre-production in Tokyo. Even as the crew arrived in Japan, Murray had not definitively confirmed his involvement, and Coppola had no idea whether or not her passion project would be getting off the ground. She was steadfast in her belief that without Bill Murray, the film would not be made.
Coppola’s fears may have been well founded, as even after 15 years and all the acclaim that the film has garnered, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Bob Harris. Lost in Translation brought to light a rare gem: an actor known for one type of character getting to play someone far from the norm, stunning the viewing audience with a performance that is fresh and truthful in the same vein as Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine or Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook.
Murray’s commitment to the role and his willingness to play scenes in whatever natural direction he felt they were going in (despite the script) quickly created a winning formula. Coppola embraced Murray’s inventiveness with open arms, with numerous scenes being completely improvised (the scene between Bob and an elderly Japanese man in a hospital waiting room is pure gold from beginning to end). Murray and Johansson shared an on-screen bond that shined through every scene, and each decision they make seems organic and natural, with the audience getting to see a rare screen gem, a relationship that is totally believable.
Japan itself also plays a major role. No other country in the world can convey a sense of what it’s like to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a major metropolitan area, and yet be able to find peace and tranquility hidden away in its quiet, softly-lit corners. Sofia Coppola had always intended to shoot the film as if it could all have been a dream, framing the neon glare of Tokyo and the tranquil stillness of leafy Kyoto with a complex soft focus. It at once conveys a sense of dreamlike stillness and a world where the dreamer has total control over their fate.
What Lost in Translation does better than anything however, is to show how a profound sense of isolation and loneliness can drive someone. At the beginning of the story Charlotte finds herself alone in a hotel room overlooking the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. She struggles to hold back tears as she tells her mother over the phone how much fun she’s having while photographer husband John (played with a loving detachment by Giovanni Ribisi) is out working.
Bob arrives later that day, in Japan on business to shoot a commercial for a famous Japanese whiskey of which he is the reluctant face. All the while his high-flying status is overshadowed by the inescapable thought that his career may be over, his marriage is dying, and as Charlotte immediately notices, he’s only “a Porsche away from a mid-life crisis”.
Bob spends his days in front of a camera dealing with the (often hilarious) mistranslations of the difficult Japanese directors and photographers he works with, whilst Charlotte tries to stave off the crushing isolation of her hotel room by wandering around Tokyo and Kyoto trying to take in culture and “feel something” from the myriad Japanese traditions that surround her. When the two come together, the profound sense of loneliness is replaced by one of joy. The friends fill in each other’s blanks, a perfect complement of what the other is missing. They experience an almost spiritual sense of fulfillment, with each glance and smile seeming to rejuvenate the other. In a city of millions they might as well be the only two people to walk its streets.
Although their time together is short and not always smooth sailing, Bob and Charlotte have a connection so strong that even if one lets the side down, the other will always be on hand to offer joke-laden forgiveness. The audience cannot help but feel lifted by their relationship, that there is hope and someone there for you, even in a totally alien environment on the other side of the world.
Lost in Translation is special for many reasons, but the most prominent is its truthfulness. Every shot is believable, every line delivered real. You fully believe that a frustrated movie star and a lonely graduate student could meet on the other side of the planet and each heal the other. Bob’s final line, whispered to Charlotte as they depart each other’s company for the last time, is never revealed, and in the 15 years since, neither Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, nor indeed Sofia Coppola has ever broken that silence. And that’s just fine. Because a film like this doesn’t need explanations or dissection, it just needs to be watched.
Like all the best films, over time it becomes a living thing, with its own personality, moods and memories. When you look, it looks back. And its words and images leave you with a sense that no matter where you are in the world, no matter how much loneliness you experience, or how inescapably lost you feel; there is always someone willing to get lost with you.