Just in time for the weekend, I recommend a film – either streaming on Netflix or in theaters – that’s good fun and also provides food-for-thought on fatherhood.
Directed by Sofia Coppola, currently streaming on Netflix
Few movies feel so novelistic as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. I know, novelistic sounds vague and poncy. What I mean is, Coppola lingers over small details, letting her characters talk but also giving them great silences. There’s an entrancing slowness to this movie – shots held long, conversations drawn out – but it never feels slow. Coppola sets this tone from the start, with an image of Scarlett Johansson’s gorgeous derriere in translucent pink underwear that stays on the screen just long enough for the eroticism to drain out of it, and for the viewer to see it as an almost abstract thing of beauty.
This kind of disorientation matches what the characters experience in the story. Bob Harris, played by the expert Bill Murray, checks into the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial for the Japanese brand Suntory. There he meets Charlotte (Johanson), a recent philosophy graduate accompanying her big-shot photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), sightseeing and hanging about without much to do. Though at very different points in their life, both Harris and Charlotte struggle with the same existential malaise: what am I doing with my life?
Middle-aged Harris, of course, has more baggage. He receives numerous faxes from his wife in the States, at home with the children. She’s redoing his office and asks him to weigh in on carpet choices and furniture. He has short conversations with her in which she’s harried by the kids while he’s dazed with jet lag. In these scenes, it’s hard to imagine any actor other than Bill Murray conveying this slurry of emotion with just the right amounts of sincerity and disdain. A single arched eyebrow and he tells you: As much as he wants, really, to care about this domestic life with its varying shades of red carpeting, he can’t help but find it inane.
“My kids don’t really need me,” he tells Charlotte. While his movie career provides them with a comfortable life, emotionally Harris feels lost. Charlotte’s had the rug pulled out from under her in a different way – newly married and graduated, with all her life ahead of her, she feels less excited and more disappointed by her prospects.
The two wander the bars and karaoke clubs of Tokyo at night, bond over classic movies, and squabble over hotpot, engaged in a struggle we’re all familiar with, I think. Just because you achieve the things you thought you wanted to achieve, or thought you should achieve, doesn’t mean you feel settled or accomplished. The human animal is in constant motion, in need of new goals, challenges, and sensations, restless in its self-imposed cage of a life just as Harris and Charlotte pace about the glass walls of their highrise unable to sleep, plagued by insomnia. These characters want to communicate with one another, and with those they love, and even with the foreign culture around them, and ultimately, I think, they want to have a heart-to-heart with themselves. But as the title suggests, they can’t quite figure out what they want to say, or what it is that they’re hearing in return.
What man hasn’t struggled with these same questions or wondered what else is out there – other professions, other people, other problems to confront and overcome. What’s the cure for this restlessness? Even if you go halfway around the world to Tokyo, you face the same problems in a different setting. There is no escaping yourself.
And yet, Coppola’s film leaves us hopeful, in ways that, even if I wanted to write down, would sound pedestrian on the page. Perhaps I was wrong at the outset to call Lost in Translation novelistic. It’s more like a short story, stretched into a full length feature. The film tells a poignant tale in which little happens but much is signified, and it leaves a viewer humming afterward, arrested by its beautiful and bittersweet tone.