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Jaded in Japan 

Sofia Coppola's film about Americans abroad loses its way when it veers close to home

Perusing some arbiter of pop-cultural commentary one day in the mid-'90s, I came upon the startling news that fashion models were the latest embodiment of "hip" and "cool." I remember staring at this item with the wonder of someone who realizes he's just stumbled into a new, not altogether congenial era. Back when terms like hip and cool were applied to, say, the likes of Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan, they connoted a particularly acute awareness expressed in an individual style that resisted the formulas of mainstream commercial culture. But fashion models? Was there ever a sadder species than these hollow-cheeked modern-day serfs condemned to the vapid plantation of apparel merchandising?

To see such automatons proclaimed as hip and cool is to witness the language so emptied of meaning that it undergoes a kind of Orwellian reversal. But we know how this happens. Commercial culture sweeps all before it. Goods must be moved, and therefore the more pliant sectors of the media are enlisted in the recurrent campaigns of facile trend-mongering. That such empty-headed newspeak thoroughly infests cinematic culture is evident, lately, in the selling of Sofia Coppola and her second movie, Lost in Translation.

Coppola is this month's media darling: The onslaught began with "The Coppola Smart Mob," a Labor Day cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that marked a new low in the kind of "journalism" that exists to blow air-kisses at celebrities. In addition to swooning over Coppola's jet-set upbringing and ultra-hip taste in clothes, music and friends (Kate Moss! Thurston Moore!), the piece gushes, "She writes scripts that establish, sustain and then gently shift tone and atmosphere--not Tolstoy but Chekhov. Her films are sophisticated and plangently romantic ... It is perhaps not too much to say that she is the most original and promising young female filmmaker in America."

That, folks, is the language not of analysis or reportage but of puffery. The Coppola juggernaut has also been sustained by the hosannas Lost in Translation has drawn from critics, who must be counted a coalition of the willing. Why such effusive praise for a movie that's agreeably charming and adroit but also slight, uneven and flawed? My suspicion, in this case and others like it, is that critics are ever-more desperate for something to acclaim to justify their own existences. Thus does a respectable sophomore effort get hailed in 24-carat, marquee-ready superlative.

Tellingly, current movies that trigger excessive praise are often those which ape or reconfigure conventions from the golden age of the modernist art film, 1960-75. Such unwarranted hype has greeted films by Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson and a similar dynamic is at work with Lost in Translation, an atmospheric contemporary comedy in which an erstwhile '70s movie star (Bill Murray) and a bored young wife (Scarlett Johansson) establish a "platonic" friendship while both are staying at a ritzy Tokyo hotel.

The movie plays as if Coppola took "Art Film 101" at Yale and came away with the following useful pointers. Focus your film on the idle rich; they look good in expensive clothes. Concoct a story in which "nothing happens;" make tone and subtlety carry the day (only plebes want stories, after all). Choose a glamorous setting to suggest sophistication; you get extra points if you can afford a glamorous foreign setting, which automatically adds "cultural dislocation," etc., to your themes. Create characters who long to connect but don't; every Proust reader knows that profundity lies in melancholy yearning, not in satisfaction. Use movie stars, but do so ironically, as if they really don't affect your opening-weekend grosses. Finally, pile on all the up-to-the-minute soundtrack music, clothes and accessories your budget will allow.

Understand, I don't mean to deride these elements per se; they've all factored into films that I revere. Nor do I mean to imply that Coppola's no more than a glib imitator. She's a genuinely talented filmmaker with a great eye, a distinctive gift for visual storytelling, and a sure way with actors. Indeed, Lost in Translation starts off very appealingly, as poker-faced American actor Bob Harris (Murray) glides through the nocturnal neon canyons of Tokyo, on his way toward making a cool $2 million for endorsing a Japanese whiskey.

Despite the fee, Harris is none too pleased with his assignment, and the film has some fun early on by satirizing his communication problems with a hyperkinetic Japanese commercial director. As it turns out, the star has a kindred soul in dissatisfaction in Charlotte (Johansson), a recent Yale philosophy grad who's left becalmed in the sleek Park Hyatt while her rock-photographer hubby (Giovanni Ribisi) is off shooting bands.

The film has a plush, nuanced look and for a good while Coppola hooks the viewer with her careful, bemused, oblique observation of the grand hotel, and in charting the separate peregrinations and gradual intersections of Bob and Charlotte, who seem to both relish and resent their cozy melancholia.

As a set-up, all this is fine. It was well into the movie's second half before I began to realize how little it was adding up to, and to reflect that the film's main deficiencies are in the writing department. In that, Lost in Translation stands in decided contrast to Coppola's extraordinary debut, The Virgin Suicides, which she scripted from an acclaimed novel. The new film is an original screenplay, and it has a thinness that is only partly disguised by the engrossing look and, especially, the appealing work of the two main actors. Take away those surface virtues, and you start to notice the script's looming deficiencies.

Coppola invokes models that invite comparison, after all. Compared to golden-age icons like Antonioni's L'Avventura and Fellini's La Dolce Vita, for example, Lost in Translation strikingly avoids any examination of the issue that's at its very core: privilege. These characters lead incredibly privileged lives, and we're evidently supposed to feel their pain at, say, being paid $2 million for a week's worth of easy work. Does Coppola not understand that the films she evidently admires are considered masterpieces for creating moral frameworks that question and critique the effects of wealth, rather than simply displaying it?

This blithe incognizance wouldn't be quite so bothersome if it didn't seem to parallel that of the film itself, which no doubt would like to be taken as a scrappy "independent" work when it is so obviously conditioned at every level by the connections and privileges Coppola enjoys as the daughter of one of America's richest and most lionized moviemakers. Has that connection perhaps bequeathed her not just formidable resources and great taste, but the kind of moral blind spot that is sometimes observed in the offspring of the very rich?

The figure of Sofia's father Francis perhaps plays into the film in another rather strange, uncomfortable way as well. What are the script's true emotional wellsprings? Is Charlotte's glib trendoid of a husband a caricature of Sofia's real-life spouse, music-video turned film director Spike Jonze? And if, like Charlotte, the auteur's deepest attraction is to an older icon of America's '70s cinema, are we to read Francis into that? Is this tune's real title "My Heart Belongs to Daddy?"

The problem here, of course, is not that the film might be rife with personal references, but that any autobiographical elements remain unacknowledged and unexplored. In any case, given the way the film works on screen, all shadows of Francis eventually fade back into the rumpled visage of Bill Murray, who certainly deserves credit for much that makes Lost in Translation click with critics and many audiences.

Murray became America's favorite icon of laid-back, self-regarding irony on Saturday Night Live, and he's in what might be considered the third phase of a highly successful career at converting that video persona into a movie staple. They say he's now the man to beat for next year's best actor Oscar. As a fan of the comic, I wouldn't be unhappy to see him win the trophy. But Murray's work here, it seems to me, is less a great job of acting than an agreeable and familiar shtick fine-tuned for the purposes at hand.

Coppola uses it, understandably, to fill the gaps in her weak screenplay. Got a scene that really doesn't go anywhere or mean anything particular? No problem. Just turn on the camera and let Bill be Bill for two or three minutes. Chances are, it'll cut together beautifully.

What's missing from Lost in Translation is any sense of things outside the movie-star/rich people bubble. In the movie's early sections, its view of the Japanese (they're short, they switch their l's and r's) has an appropriate superficiality. But the end, when the Japanese are still silly cartoons and have offered up not a single three-dimensional character, I began to chew on the coincidence of the Iraq War, which depended so heavily on Americans' insularity and ignorance of the world, arriving in the same year as "art" film which reflects the very same limitations.

Like many supposedly hip films of current vintage, Lost in Translation doesn't challenge or expand our view of the world so much as it flatters it. We all know Bill Murray and the film strokes that easy familiarity, just as it assures us that we understand (and don't take too seriously) a world where celebrities earn $2 million a week and are unhappy for it. These instances of unconscious pandering are not mortal sins in my book, but they do indicate the present limitations of a young filmmaker who may yet grow into an artist. EndBlock

  • Sofia Coppola's film about Americans abroad loses its way when it veers close to home

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