Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Discovering Japan: review of Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation arrived on Film Four laden with praise from intelligent critics. It was something of a surprise, therefore, to find it tedious, mean-spirited and unconvincing, but there you go. Bill Murray hasn't aged well. Whatever cheeky charm his face may have displayed in Ghostbusters had been replaced by a craggy careworn sack by the time of Ghostbusters 2 and Groundhog Day, and he now looks like a well-preserved mummy. His character's annoyance at being mistaken for a contemporary of Sinatra and the 'lat-pack' is therefore undeserved. Incidentally, it does seem unfunny and tactless to attempt to play for humour the fact that an entire nation has learned a foreign language and has some slight difficulty with some of the sounds. Reviews singled out the 'hilarious' scene where Bill has to decipher the photographer's valiant attempts to pronounce names of film stars as the comic highpoint, which might have been warning enough.

Not that it aspires to be a mere comedy: it is a study of character. Well, I don't mind studies of character if they are interesting. Bill's character is lightly drawn as an actor who is less successful than he used to be but still famous, with an unfulfilling home life as husband and father. He looks pained a lot, especially after sleeping with the (awful) cabaret singer, but articulates nothing more than a generic feeling of dissatisfaction.

Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, is also lost, finding that accompanying her new husband to a foreign country while he works is a bit boring, something that years of academic training had failed to prepare her for. She doesn't really 'get' Japan, or at least seems not to: she spends a long time wandering around sampling classical and popular culture with a bemused look on her face, but we don't find out exactly what she thinks. Her background is even vaguer than Bill's: she 'tried writing but hated what she wrote'. Try something else, then?

Everything in the film takes a long time. Sofia Coppola obviously learned from her father that you can't make a film too long. But films shouldn't try to represent boredom by making us share it. What I think Sofia has managed to do is to create an art-movie lite, something that looks and sounds like a serious film but which has no insight to offer. It's dated too: these days, Scarlett would stay in her room, blogging.

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