MovieMonday: Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s new movie, On the Rocks, opened in a few theaters recently and will be available on some streaming services later.  I’m not going to theaters now, but I decided instead to revisit her first release, from 2003, this week.

This first film from Sofia Coppola won an original screenplay Oscar, and it is indeed original.  

In a way, it’s a small movie about the frustrations in two people’s relatively small lives.  Coppola’s insight was to set the story in an unfamiliar environment.  It concerns two frustrated people who meet in downtown Tokyo’s Park Hyatt Hotel.

Bill Murray plays “Mr. Bob Harris,” a middle-aged American film star whose career is winding down.  He’s taken a lucrative gig appearing in advertisements for Suntory whisky as a break from sitting around the house with his wife and children or “being in a play somewhere.”  

Harris is fully aware of the melancholy of his personal situation and the absurdity of his on-set work  — wordy Japanese instructions boiled down to a word or two in translation.  Given his professional background, he does what is expected to make the filming work, amusingly, which is a credit to Murray’s subtle talent, even for those who remember him most fondly from his more broadly comic Caddyshack days.

In a smaller room in the same hotel, newly married Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) waits for her photographer husband, who is mostly out of town on assignments.  Charlotte is lonely and facing the big existential question — what she’s going to do with her life.

Bob and Charlotte’s paths cross in the hotel’s New York Bar, and they see similarities in their situations.  Their friendship increases because they both are non-business guests who speak the same language.  (This is why the story could not work if the film were set in a hotel in New York or even Buenos Aires.) 

There are plenty of extracurricular events to break up the meditations and tensions of the two characters:  A young people’s karaoke party in Tokyo, Bob’s television appearance with”Japan’s Johnny Carson” and so on.

Still, Bob and Charlotte are kindred spirits whose relationship is important and approaches, in a way, but does not proceed to the anticipated dramatic conflict or resolution. 

The Japanese setting acts effectively as a third principal in the movie, giving it the literal  “translation” of the title that refers also to the distance between Bob and Charlotte and their respective places in life. 

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look.


Scarlett Johansson was still a newbie in this outing, but she has established herself as a substantial actor in it and since.  It is perhaps ironic that she has earned most of her fortune playing the Black Widow in Disney’s Marvel movies; in fact, a “Black Widow” film is slated for release next year.


And, yes, the problems of two small people in the context of 2020 don’t amount to a hill of beans.

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