Case Number 20472: Small Claims Court


Universal // 2003 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 10th, 2011

The Charge

Everyone wants to be found.

The Case

By the time of 2003's Lost in Translation, Bill Murray had a navigated a career filled with triumphs enough to make any (comic) actor jealous. He'd strutted his stuff in the early (brilliant) days of Saturday Night Live, starred in a near-perfect family flick (Ghostbusters), and produced a string of comedy classics with the likes of Stripes and Caddyshack. If he'd retired after Groundhog Day, no one would have complained of a potential unfulfilled. In fact, it looked as if he would retire after Groundhog Day , limiting himself to smaller roles and cameos. Then the twenty-first century rolled around, and like a phoenix reborn, Bill Murray became relevant again with a string of independent, dramatically minded roles with directors like Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. That his twenty-first century material would rival the best of his twentieth would have been heresy in 2000, but looking back from 2010, Lost in Translation is only one jewel in a crown of many accomplishments.

In contrast to the veteran Murray, Sophia Coppola had only directed one feature before Lost in Translation, the critically lauded adaptation of The Virgin Suicides. Hampered as much as helped by her family name, Coppola melded the keen dramatic sense on display from her first feature to the graphic overkill of the Tokyo skyline to create her second film. It's a triumph in every sense, from the low-key acting to the film's almost-exotic setting to its melancholy and hopeful ending. Fans who've been waiting for a Blu-ray edition won't be blown away by the presentation, but the hi-def upgrade will hopefully give the films a higher profile so that more fans can be converted to this fantastic film.

Unlike many films, Lost in Translation doesn't rely on plot, or really even drama in the traditional sense, to drive it forward. The story, as such, is simple: a struggling actor of middle age (Bill Murray) is in Japan to do a whiskey commercial. There he meets a young woman (Scarlett Johnansson, The Prestige) who's at odds because her photographer boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi, Gone in 60 Seconds) is off working. The pair form an unlikely bond, running into each other in the hotel, the only Americans apparent. Together they explore Tokyo and offer an odd comfort to one another before parting.

Most other films would immediately turn this simple plot into a melodramatic May-December romantic comedy (think Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, for instance). There would be loads of farcical encounters, exotic locations, comic misunderstandings with the natives, and a happy-ever-after ending between the leads. Not so with Lost in Translation. This film relies on mood and character to carry it through its 104 minutes. Bob (Murray) and Charlotte (Johansson) embody the "lost" in the title: both are at odds in their relationships with their significant others, both overwhelmed by the cultural influences of Tokyo, and both unsure of where to go next. This gives the film a poignant tone that Coppola's stately camera only reinforces.

Most other films would also play up the sexual charge between Bob and Charlotte. Instead, Lost in Translation is more universal. It's a film about how two people grow close together, the shared experiences and breathless joy of discovering a new compatible soul. In another time and place Bob and Charlotte might have been lovers, but Lost in Translation aims for something more general, showing their relationships as a delicate flower we get to watch blossom in the Tokyo hothouse.

Enough about other films. Finally Lost in Translation stands on its own as that rare film that touches on its predecessors but ultimately seems to stand alone without ancestor or progeny. Sophia Coppola has created a tiny little world that intersects with our own (sharing the locale of Tokyo) but whose true beauty is in its otherworldliness. Viewers know that they'll never have an experience as perfect as that shared by Bob and Charlotte, but it feels like enough of a privilege to watch their relationship unfold.

Lost in Translation is so good, in fact, that it probably deserves a better release. Not that this one is bad, but just not as good as the film deserves. It starts with the 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded transfer. It's a definite improvement on the DVD, with better color rendition, stronger textures, and a better handling of grain. However, it's always hard to tell if the softness is the result of the indie production or laziness in the transfer department. In either case the film looks good, but there's the nagging feeling it could look better. Not so with the soundtrack, a DTS-HD 5.1 mix that's remarkably immersive. The track does a great job balancing the ambience of Tokyo with the dialogue and soundtrack.

Lost in Translation is a film that deserves either a barebones package to highlight its solitary poignancy, or a full-blown neon special edition to fit with the Tokyo environment. This disc splits the difference, offering the extras from the previous DVD release without adding too much. We get the behind-the-scenes featurette, the Coppola/Murray interview, some deleted scenes, extended talk show pieces, a music video, and the film's trailer. The additional extras show why this disc is finally getting the Blu-ray treatment: we get a promo for Coppola's forthcoming Somewhere and that film's trailer.

The film is certainly not for everyone. It has a slow pace and little in the way of traditional plot to hold onto. I think it rewards attention and multiple viewings (and it's a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll), but its pleasures are peculiar and those who dislike Coppola's other work will probably find little here to love.

Right now, Lost in Translation is Sophia Coppola's greatest achievement. If she never made another film, then this one would show that she was a talented filmmaker with a clear vision and the control to see it brought to the screen. Although it's not the grand hi-def release that many fans might want, this Blu-ray release of Lost in Translation looks and sounds good enough to tempt fans to upgrade, even if the extras are all familiar. Those new to the film should give it a rental, especially lovers of Murray or Johansson.

The Verdict

It might be Lost in Translation, but the film is not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile
Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)

* English (SDH)
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurettes
* Interview
* Music Video
* Trailers

* IMDb