Lost in Translation.

Make text smaller Make text larger

Lost in Translation
Directed by Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation surely has the year's most puzzling title sequence. The three sell words slowly materialize beneath a shot of a young woman's ass sheathed in pink pantyhose. Stuff magazine couldn't have asked for more. Perhaps director-writer Sofia Coppola is shrewd enough to know that this is exactly the trendy stuff that garners one hype as an "original" film artist. But what is it exactly about a delectable tush that gets lost in translation? Wouldn't it depend on who's doing the translating? And what is the correct meaning one is supposed to infer from such a shot?

Whatever. It's ambiguous, thus "cool."

There's no doubt that Miss Coppola has a self-serving interest in young women's soft spots. (Her first film was the enervating, filigreed yet somber The Virgin Suicides.) That's Scarlett Johansson's rump we're invited to stare at, and the rest of the movie frames delicate close-ups of her lovely pale face, strawberry lips and sunset hair. But below the surface is a soul in turmoil. As Charlotte, Johansson plays a 25-year-old into the second year of her marriage to a hip photographer (Giovanni Ribisi); she's accompanied him on a business trip to Tokyo, but there's nothing for her to do except feel lonely and look dewy. "Get her!" would be the normal, sarcastic response, but Coppola obviously wants us to dig her?and take Charlotte's luxurious dilemma to heart.

Although I defend Sofia Coppola's performance as Mary, the cosseted Italian-American princess in the criminally undervalued The Godfather, Part III, her recent turns at film directing suggest that she wasn't really acting. It's hard to think of other filmmakers who tried this hard to make a virtue of privileged-girl petulance or other films by women that so evidently bought into patriarchy and the male point of view. (If Coppola were any more erotically empathetic, she'd shoot in Smell-O-Vision.) Coppola achieves this regression of sexual politics in Lost in Translation by concocting a platonic May-December romance between Charlotte and Bob Harris, a cynical, bored, internationally known American actor also in Tokyo shooting a series of television commercials for Suntory whiskey.

Coppola understands that today's young females have no use for the old-fashioned feminist platitudes (thanks to Madonna and now Britney and Christina). Lost in Translation sentimentalizes female dissatisfaction and avoids rooting its causes in politics or social customs. Charlotte wears ennui like a wardrobe accessory?or more precisely, as a flimsy foundation garment. She finds a soulmate in Bob by recognizing his restlessness. It's she who has to tell him he's having "a mid-life crisis." The irony works as humor because Bob is played by Bill Murray, who is a good enough actor to even make fatigue seem funny. Bob's petulance perfectly matches Charlotte's. Although the scenes of Murray being snide and superior to his Japanese hosts are decidedly unfunny (people laugh simply cuz it's Bill Murray), his sympathizing with Charlotte's bratty discontent strikes a chord: American isolationism is the essence of self-absorbed people with nothing but time and money on their hands.

My interpretation is not necessarily what Coppola's intended (I'm still trying to figure out that roseate buttcrack); her ga-ga theme is pathetically situated in the spoiled personalities of her lead characters. Charlotte is a Yale graduate who majored in philosophy, yet she finds nothing in Japan to stimulate her thoughts; she just listens to self-help audiotapes. Bob has detached himself from his wife and children back in the States and complains about work. "They're paying me $2 million to do a tv commercial but I ought to be doing theater." He's not just making the mortgage, he's basking in privilege?and resenting it.

Crazy thing about Lost in Translation is that Coppola sees nothing wrong in her characters' subjectivity. It's replicated in the film's s-l-o-w, unemphatic rhythms; she must think we go to the movies to drift. Cinematographer Lance Acord (who shot the first features by Spike Jonze, Coppola's real-life husband) doesn't like light. He reduces Tokyo to neutral tones, shadows, vague glass reflections and alienating neon. Perhaps this is how today's affluent, advantaged and successful youth really do see the world?through gray Ray-Bans. No doubt Coppola seeks parallels with the early-60s alienation dramas of Antonioni (L'Avventura) and Fellini (La Dolce Vita). That was the sly joke of her brother Roman Coppola's marvelous debut film CQ. But Roman Coppola had a firmer grip on his own entitlement and resentment; he was able to convey it as palpable, romantic, artistic longing while also plainly dramatizing his Oedipal conflict with his famous father.

It's poignant proof of complex father-daughter dynamics that Sofia Coppola translates her personal family tension into Lost in Translation's very chaste girl-to-father-figure rapprochement. Charlotte and Bob lying side by side (his hand on her ankle) and later embracing are the film's two most effective moments, because they are pantomimes of a relationship the director probably sincerely feels?although she cannot yet turn it into credible, compelling drama. Right now, the media coddles the misadventures of bewildered young women (note the hyperbole already heaped on Lilya 4-Ever and Thirteen) without requiring that the characters (or the filmmakers) engage honestly and fairly with the world. When empowerment goes unchallenged to this extent, it reflects an unpleasant truth about Coppola and her generation of pampered, history-ignorant slackers. (Charlotte and Bob never once reflect on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. They're more obsessed with pinball arcades and karaoke versions of New Wave pop.)

Not even Mary Corleone was so pampered that being in a foreign country felt as strange to her as it does to Charlotte and Bob. Who doesn't feel strange in a foreign country! Antonioni and Fellini understood that it was the alienation one felt at home that shook the soul. Lost in Translation tells us nothing more profound than that Sofia Coppola's pantyhose are squeezing her brain.

Matchstick Men

Matchstick Men
Directed by Ridley Scott

After years of strain, Nicolas Cage has finally become a powerful, poignant actor. In Matchstick Men, Cage's tics and flamboyance are the basis of a man with a problem. He plays Roy Walker, a con artist suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and an array of phobias?including religious superstitions about which he chides his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell). If you've ever seen Cage in a movie before, you've seen these mannerisms: But here they're not just showy?they convey all the character that is necessary to make the film's elaborate-sting plot feel somewhat more than formulaic.

Cage stirs emotion when Roy is approached by Alison Lohman portraying Angela, the child he abandoned in a previous marriage, now teen-aged and searching for acceptance just like him. This part of the movie evokes Bogdanovich's poignant 1973 father-daughter huckster comedy Paper Moon; though it's not nearly so good, Matchstick Men is the closest any Hollywood crime movie has come to resurrecting the values of honesty and responsibility. (Neil Jordan's superior The Good Thief was made outside Hollywood.) Roy's sessions with an analyst explore his guilt about using his daughter in his scams (it's not just self-justification therapy as in The Sopranos). This perspective is so unusual?and unexpected?that some people may be willing to go along with the moral uplift enough to be moved by the ending. I think the ending is hackneyed and unconvincing, yet Cage stands for Everyman's response to a morally compromised world.

This film, and the disingenuous Adaptation, shows an actor making the best of a bad situation?acting responsibly. Can't say the same about Ridley Scott's directing: It's as soulless as in the last three, unconscionable films he made?Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down. My guess is that Matchstick Men's humanism comes from producer Robert Zemeckis (though it's a long way from the tonal complexity of Catch Me if You Can). Scott simply makes it undeniably pretty?as slick and gloriously monochrome as Hype Williams' new video Rain on Me for Ashanti. That's right, it's a commercial?with "heart."

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters