The recent death of writer, director and actor Harold Ramis (1944-2014) brought some long-due attention to both his genius and his responsibility for some of the best comedies of the past 30 years. Many of those movies, including classics like Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, were not only carried by the stories themselves, but by the way Ramis’s then friend and collaborator Bill Murray animated characters of the films. Unfortunately, Ramis and Murray severed their working relationship after the filming of Ground Hog Day, reportedly over the tonal direction of the movie and it's lack of a more serious undercurrent. The breakup did, however, lead Murray to further explore acting beyond comedy, and may have ultimately led to one of the best romantic and philosophical movies ever made – the 2003 Lost In Translation.
At its core, Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola and costarringScarlett Johansson in her first true adult role (even though she was only 17 at the time), explores how context determines the way in which we perceive our lives and the fragile nature of the relationships we develop with others. Murray and Johansson play two Americans who find themselves in the totally alien culture of Japan, each struggling with the transition from one stage of life to another. Charlotte (Johansson) is a young, newly minted philosophy graduate from Yale with a photographer husband who is too busy developing his career to notice the rapidly expanding emotional and intellectual chasm between them. Bob (Murray) is a successful, although aging, movie star who finds himself on the cusp of a mid-life crisis, trying to find something that will help him regain mental flow that made his films, wife and family a joy instead of a burden. By chance they meet in a Tokyo hotel and, whether due to the insomnia of jet lag or their mutual ache of estrangement from life, strike up a friendship that hovers in that gray area of sexual tension that is unique to the older man, younger woman genre. Observing the two of them navigate this minefield is what makes the film a joy to watch.
At the outset, I worried that the classic May-November romance of this movie would devolve into a creepy sex-with-regret storyline that seems to dominate modern film. Instead, Coppola skillfully steers the relationship into emotional areas much deeper than any physical romp could ever dive. Coppola has indicated that the movie is at least partially autobiographical, and it really shows in the delicate way Charlotte and Bob struggle to cope with their attraction to each other, their concepts of monogamy, and the realization that their time together will be brief. Roger Ebert aptly described the movie as a meditation on the Japanese concept of the transience of life, "mono no aware," and it is clear from the looks that pass between Charlotte and Bob that they have no idea where the relationship is heading or how it will end. They just understand that it will, some time soon, end.
Murray as an Accomplished Actor
If you grew up watching Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live and in his earlier movies, it may be difficult to think of him as something other than a sardonic comedian. But, Murray was always a skillful actor with the ability to create a unique persona around a character. His move beyond straight-up comedy to roles with a dramatic flair was just a matter of time and experience. In Lost In Translation, we see Murray at the heights of the craft, where the lines become blurred between an actor in a part and real person being surreptitiously filmed in normal life.
Of course, no movie starring Bill Murray can maintain a serious tone throughout, and this one has plenty of wryly humorous scenes that allow Murray to showcase his comedic chops against the backdrop of a society he doesn't understand, both literally in terms of language and figuratively in terms of culture (although, as Bob, he jumps right into the karaoke, pachinko, and party culture of Tokyo). But, what was startling to me was that I never got the sense that Bob was Murray. Put another way, Murray's verbal and physical execution of the script was so smooth and understated that I really had the sense that I was eavesdropping on the life of two individuals, each looking for a release from the stress of their adult lives. Johansson also deserves credit for this, as she played a perfectly pitched romantic and comedic foil to Murray. This movie portrayed the way people really interact with each other, especially when they find themselves thrown together and isolated from their normal worlds.
Why You Need To See It
Lost In Translation is often described as a romantic comedy, but that doesn't begin to describe the movie. Realistic, bittersweet, and with an understanding of how a man and a woman can deeply connect across the generational divide, the movie portrays how real adults cope with the human condition and the ambiguities that arise in the course of life. Obviously staying true to her own experience, Coppola avoids a pat ending to the movie, instead opting for realism, open-endedness, and the improvisational talent of Murray. Even Johansson, not to mention Charlotte, seemed genuinely surprised at how the two ultimately part ways. You will, too.