Since making her feature directorial debut in 1998 with 'The Virgin Suicides,' Sofia Coppola has gone through an interesting if decidedly uneven career trajectory. Her follow-up to 'Suicides,' 'Lost in Translation,' was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and established her as a considerable talent – one perhaps on par with her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola. Since then, however, she experienced a critical drubbing for 'Marie Antoinette,' a lush but largely aimless biopic of the French queen (which I confess I liked), and has thus far received only mixed praise for its follow-up, 'Somewhere,' which is being released this Friday.
Having recently seen 'Somewhere,' I didn't respond strongly to its understated portrait of a movie star coming to terms with his empty, decadent lifestyle. But the film's quiet ambiguity and its lackadaisical approach to storytelling made me wonder whether Coppola's filmmaking style still remained relevant, or if her earlier success was as much a byproduct of the time in which her films were released as their own technical merits. As such, I elected to return to her biggest career triumph, 'Lost in Translation,' for this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Following a limited run that netted the film more than $900,000 in just 23 theaters, 'Lost in Translation' was given a national release on October 3, 2003, and it earned some $117 million worldwide. The film received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Bill Murray), Best Director (Sofia Coppola), Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay, and won the Screenplay award. It won three BAFTA awards for Best Editing, Actor (Murray) and Actress (Scarlett Johansson), and three Golden Globes for Best Screenplay, Actor and Picture. Meanwhile, the film maintains a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Much like 'Before Sunrise,' a film to which it is often compared, 'Lost in Translation' is a really beautiful and slightly sad portrait of two people coming together for a brief moment when they really need one another. Coppola creates an amazingly evocative snapshot of both Murray and Johansson's characters and where they are in their lives, and then builds a sweet little relationship between them that's believable and romantic and at the same time carefully platonic. The way in which they get to know one another is very naturalistic and unforced, and it further enhances the sense that these two characters snuck away from their respective, unhappy lives and found solace in the companionship of someone else who understands that sort of emptiness.
Although some of the supporting characters, in particular Giovanni Ribisi's permanently-distracted photographer husband and Anna Faris' airheaded starlet, are somewhat broader than the more subtly-rendered characters at the center of the story, they provide a strong enough fulcrum for them to react to that the audience doesn't need a more concrete storyline or "more to happen" in order for it to be entertaining or emotionally involving. Meanwhile, both Murray and Johansson do some of the best acting of their careers, both fully inhabiting their respective roles and sort of embodying themselves on screen at the same time; both actors seem like they were at that same point in their careers and potentially lives as their characters are, and by that same token seem to come to terms with themselves and/or discover new things that they hadn't explored before then.
And finally, the film really vividly captures Tokyo in both its exoticism and its surprising alienation. Presenting the city as a sort of technical marvel and one replete with ceremony and ritual, and simultaneously one where it seems impossible to make a meaningful connection – even if you know the language – Coppola creates a perfect environment that's both familiar and alien, crafting a hermetically-sealed universe where Bob and Charlotte get to know one another.
What Doesn't Work: Although the movie is obviously meant to be from the point of view of the English-speaking characters, Coppola's depiction of Japan and Japanese culture is not always entirely flattering. There's a delicate balance to strike between being condescending and accurately (even for dramatic purposes) showing how out of their element these two characters are, and depending on your focus the film doesn't always maintain that balance successfully. Otherwise the film's pacing is slow and methodical, albeit deliberate, and that sort of storytelling can become tedious without interesting characters or effective performances – which, thankfully, Coppola has both of.
What's The Verdict: 'Lost in Translation' is a terrific movie and it's still as resonant and evocative as when it was released in 2003. If I have to highlight the potential difference that may make or break the audience's identification with the story of 'Somewhere' as opposed to this one, it's that in 'Translation,' the characters' problems are relatable, and there's a stronger sense of universality – regardless if you connect with Charlotte or Bob more – than there are with an affluent and successful actor who endures an empty life because he's so successful and affluent. However, whether or not you ultimately respond to 'Somewhere,' there is thankfully some reassurance to be found in the fact that Coppola's talents are very real and very lasting, even if you think they happen to be somewhere else.