Lost in Translation (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When I was doing market analyses and feasibility studies for Shell and Mobil, I got into a familiar mode of reaction to exotic ports of call in my final years in that job. I'd spend evenings in my hotel room looking out over massive cities, feeling alone, although surrounded by millions of people. I'd see the lights and hear the noises and realize that people were out there having fun and living their lives, but if I got outside the hotel, I wouldn't know where to look for the entertainment, and if I found it, I wouldn't find it very entertaining after all.

So I did my thing during the day, studied traffic patterns and consumption statistics, interviewed wholesalers and building contractors and lawyers and small business owners, studied whatever retailing statistics might be available, talked to the international businesses already operating in the area, all in an effort to try to figure out how much, if any, of my clients' money should be spent on developing convenience stores in that market. It was a pretty cool job when I was spending weeks at a time in Perth, or Milan, or Paris, but plans for those markets were soon solidified, and that led me to the developing world.

There were times when the job was completely disorienting. I can remember one trip when I woke up in Austin, did a meeting in London, grabbed a plane to Zurich, grabbed another plane to South Africa, did a meeting in Cape Town, then got on a plane and flew to Buenos Aires to meet with a new client. In the course of that trip, I slept about four hours, none of it before the meeting in Cape Town. My view of London, a spectacular one from Shell's impressive Thames-side HQ, was filled with the realization that just about everyone in that magnificent city was having more fun than I was. Or so it seemed. That feeling would be echoed through the years in Harare, Manila, Singapore, Port Moresby, Hong Kong, San Salvador, Caracas, Djakarta, Johannesburg, Cairo, and a whole lot more places where I felt like a prisoner in a very nice prison. I'd sneak out of the hotel or resort once in a while, but I never seemed to "get it". Either I simply didn't belong on the streets at all, or the activities designed for visiting businessmen (read: booze and hookers) were really not for me.

Sometimes it was crazy. A client would want me in Singapore a few days after leaving Manila, so I wouldn't even go home, skipping the 40 hours worth of flying and layovers. I'd just hang out a few extra days in a hotel somewhere, with no reason to be there. I spent many sleepless nights looking out from hotel rooms into cities, picturing other people's lives, having none of my own except my laptop and HBO, writing reports, always feeling exhausted, but rarely sleeping well.


There are several unidentified strippers in a Tokyo topless club.

When I watched Lost in Translation, I felt that the filmmaker (writer/director Sofia Coppola) had been looking over my shoulder, so I guess she did a lot correctly. Bill Murray plays me. Actually, he's a fading movie star who is in Tokyo to do a whiskey ad campaign, but the set-up is exactly the same as it would have been if he were playing me. He works all day, then tries to figure out what to do at night. He rattles sleeplessly around his room, watching Italian movies with Japanese subtitles. He wanders down to the hotel bar, where he has to spend most of his time avoiding road warrior assholes. He is disoriented in the streets, and can't relate that well to the locals because of language and cultural barriers. He inevitably ends up back in his room, staring at the city, channel surfing through bizarre local shows. 

As it happens, he eventually hooks up with a young Yale graduate who is in town with her photographer husband, but who has no agenda of her own, and is thus going through the same thing as Murray. They are two of the three important characters in the film. The third is Tokyo: loud, confusing, garish, and so very foreign to the eyes of two weary Americans.

That is all the film is about: a world-weary older man and a smart young woman who are each too complex and evolved for their own good, and a gigantic, confusing city.

At first, I found it difficult to get involved in the film. It is paced very slowly, and scenes seem to go on long after their point has been made. It takes too long for Murray and the woman to meet and to start hanging out. But then, when they finally linked up, it hooked me in, and couldn't let go when I realized how completely honest the film was in picturing Murray's and the woman's weariness and alienation in Japan. The script stayed honest, irrespective of whether that led into politically incorrect or culturally insensitive territory (the Japanese seem like shallow, time-wasting morons), because the narrative had to stay in the POV of bewildered foreigners. That picture is not what Tokyo is, necessarily, but how they perceived it.

The two of them never became lovers. They exchanged some deep parts of their souls, but never their bodies. On Murray's last day in town, they said good-bye a couple of times, not knowing how to mark the end of a relationship that meant something to them, yet had really been only a few conversations here and there. Should they hug or kiss or something? Finally, Murray went back, determined to mark this important stage in his life with a proper ending. He grabbed her, hugged her, kissed her, whispered something to her that we could not hear, and walked away. I've been there, too, on those overseas adventures, so involved with another person's life that I couldn't bear to leave her, still really just getting to know her, yet knowing that I had to leave, and that there was no way to fit that woman into my life. Watching Murray say good-bye to Scarlett Johannson, I remembered so clearly saying good-bye to Anita in Hungary when I had to leave and she had to stay. I wanted to say more but didn't know what to say. Like Murray in the movie, I couldn't say I loved her because I didn't know her well enough to love her. I loved as much as I knew. Each of us wished we could have more time together, but we knew we could not. Each of us had lived a brief and blissful life in counter-earth with the other, happy for that chance, but crushed by the imminence of its ending so soon and so absolutely. Each of us wanted to mark the day in some important way, but we didn't know how. I was twenty five years her senior, just as Murray was in this movie. Was it emotionally irresponsible of me to get so involved in relationships which are surely doomed, even though I was single? Probably. He without sin may cast the first stone.

When I saw that farewell scene, I felt that my privacy had been invaded. I knew that Sofia Coppola, and/or whomever she collaborated with on this script, had really been in that situation and knew exactly what it was like, and had told it like it was.

Will the characters see each other again? I doubt it, but that is me speaking, not the movie. The movie lets each of us have his own final word on the matter, because the words whispered by Murray remain a secret between the two screen characters.

Bill Murray is terrific in this film. Essentially, he is playing a guy a lot like Harrison Ford  - the name is Bob Harris -  world-weary, grouchy, sardonic, tight-lipped, a formerly colossal star who stayed married to the same woman for 20+ years. I don't think it is illogical to think that Harrison was the model, at least in a very general sense. The woman Ford stayed married to for those two decades was Sofia Coppola's regular  babysitter. Sofia wrote this screenplay. The connection is there, but the model was loose to begin with, and Bill Murray made it looser. The character isn't really based on Ford, or Murray, or even a combination, but on somebody pulled out from somewhere deep inside of Murray, from a place that nobody knew existed.

DVD info from Amazon

  • A conversation with director Sofia Coppola and actor Bill Murray

  • "Lost on Location" - behind-the-scenes featurette including exclusive footage shot by the filmmakers

  • Deleted scenes

  • "Matthew's Best Hit TV" - an extended version of the Japanese TV show

  • Music video

  • Trailers

  • Widescreen anamorphic format

Except for Ford himself, I can't imagine anyone else playing this role, and even ol' Indiana Jones would have had trouble conveying the depth of emotions that Murray pulled out of his facial expressions. Without saying a single word, he made my eyes tear up once. Hell, this movie was my life story, or at least a decade of it, and Murray played me better than I could have played myself. I can't believe this is Bill Murray I'm talking about. Whoda thunk it?

The script made me think of things I once experienced, but had forgotten. It made me remember dreams I had cast away. All I can tell you is they either made this movie just for me, or it must be a helluva good movie to get me to insert myself vicariously into the action. Maybe a big chunk of both. I don't know why the rest of you would give a hot damn about my life, because it really wasn't that lively, and this movie isn't that lively, but they definitely got all the details right.


Lost in Translation (2003) is a very well-made indie from Sofia Coppola shot in Japan, and featuring Bill Murray as an aging actor there to shoot a whiskey commercial, and Scarlett Johansson as the young wife of a photographer who is working in Japan. The two end up driven together, despite their age difference, by loneliness and the isolation of being in a very foreign country alone. To fully appreciate this film, which doesn't really have a big cinematic plot, I think you need to have lived the story. So much resonated with me from my business travels. It was also an interesting look at Japan today, which is very different from what I saw there in the mid 60's.

Golden Globes loved this film, and especially Murray's performance.  I loved every moment of it. Murray played exactly the emotions I have often felt, and Johansson was wonderful and appealing. It was a unique concept, and was done very well.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: four stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 4/4. It is probably the best reviewed movie of the year so far.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.2/10 (Top 250 of all time), Yahoo voters score it B+.
  • Box Office Mojo. A big winner in terms of profit. Made for four million dollars, with another six million in variable distribution and marketing costs, it has grossed $21 million, and will come close to $30 million before it disappears. An Oscar nomination and a re-release in Spring could make it immensely profitable. (My hat is off to Sofia if she made this film for four million dollars, shooting in location in the world's most expensive city, and with the perfect star for the film. I guess Murray himself worked dirt cheap to show what he could do. Good call.)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this is a high C+. It is basically an arthouse film, but it is a tremendous one, intelligent and honest and profound. That may not sell too many tickets, but it generated some Oscar nods." Tuna says, "This is a B-. Even those who aren't drawn to character driven comedy/dramas will probably enjoy this one."

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