Sofia Coppola is the privileged daughter of Hollywood. Riding on the coattails of her legendary father, Francis Ford Coppola, she has enjoyed an automatic credibility unknown to other filmmakers of her generation. Her projects — such as her first, “The Virgin Suicides” — begin and end with the Coppola stamp of approval. This allows her production benefits and a certain degree of creative leniency. Her name alone is enough to raise the necessary funding for her films and to secure complete artistic control. Good for Sofia. Bad for us.
In the hands of a more skilled director, this freedom could yield movies with a unique and powerful vision. But Sofia fails to take advantage of her hereditary benefits. Her most recent endeavor, “Lost in Translation,” comes across as a well-intentioned yet poorly executed mood piece. It feels like an entry from Coppola’s personal diary, thrown onto the screen with no small measure of self-importance, and without enough substance to make it meaningful for the rest of us. The characters are hollow, the plot is shapeless, and the visual interpretation is drab and flat. “Lost in Translation” leaves the viewer feeling cheated. If only we knew more and were shown more, then perhaps we might learn something from the experience, or at least enjoy a pretty show. But Coppola gives us neither.
The story concerns two American strangers who meet in the same Tokyo hotel. Because of their mutual loneliness they drift toward each other and together search for distractions from boredom. Their relationship walks the line between a tepid romance and a salubrious friendship. Unfortunately it fulfills neither, leaving the story in a dissatisfying limbo. The dissatisfaction has much to do with a general lack of suspense in the plot. Coppola pins too much on nice subtleties — in its humor and mood — but forgets to give the story much arc.
The film’s problems start with Coppola’s script, and it never fully recovers from this initial stumbling block. First, factual inaccuracies undermine the believability of the story. For example, how did Johansson’s character graduate from Yale while living in Los Angeles with her photographer husband at the same time? Also, we never get a sense of how characters enter situations and how they leave them, due to the stunted length of scenes. Therefore Coppola misses crucial opportunities to reveal their intentions and develop their dimensionality. It would have nice to see how Murray dealt with getting rid of the unwanted lounge singer in his bedroom, or to see how she got there in the first place.
Coppola’s treatment of the environment doesn’t clarify things either. Set in modern day Tokyo, the film treats Japanese culture with an ironic detachment. The characters (and the filmmaker) never take the time to investigate their foreign landscape. Instead they act as jaded tourists in a land of sushi restaurants, video arcades, karaoke bars, Buddhist temples, and neon signs. The camera shows us little but postcard images of Tokyo, in the style of Marc Jacobs’ ads. And again we must ask, “Isn’t there more?”
To Coppola’s credit, she did a fine casting job. Johansson, as Charlotte, fills the role of an apathetic, soul-searching 20-something to perfection. Her pervasive ennui comes across so effortlessly that one must wonder whether she’s acting at all, or whether her mood is effective because the film itself is so boring. Bill Murray also succeeds in his part as an insecure, over-the-hump actor, Bob Harris. The dramatic range of both characters is as wide as the script allows, in other words paper-thin. However, each actor overcomes their narrative and directorial straightjacket and manages to engage the audience. Following the pattern of Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love,” Murray communicates especially well as a muted comedic actor.
In the end there are no memorable lines or images in “Lost in Translation.” But since it bears the name Coppola, viewers and critics might want to like it so much that they probably will. And many have. In America’s current movie environment, “Lost in Translation” might be the best thing out there, despite its flaws. This reveals its most important function — as an alarm that our film artists need to try harder and that audiences need to demand more.