February 24, 2004

The Most Over-Rated Movie of 2003?

Posted by Ed

Last night, Susan and I finally got around to seeing Lost in Translation. It was a good movie, and I enjoyed seeing it, but I can't quite figure out why so many people are so excited about it; in fact, I think that the flaws in the film have something to tell us about how the process of movie-reviewing itself can be flawed and unreliable.

It seems fair to begin my comments with a statement of what I liked about the movie. It did a wonderful job capturing mood and atmosphere, giving us a feel for the loneliness of the main characters and the disorientation of international travel. The scenes of Tokyo were visually impressive. I liked the way that the relationship between the two main characters was handled subtlely and that the plot proceeded at a slow, deliberate pace. The acting, finally, was quite good.

What didn't I like about Lost in Translation?

  • Bill Murray's performance was really impressive in a lot of ways, but it never seemed completely real to me. Murray did a wonderful job adding a restrained and subtle feel to his usual comic persona, but I never really believed that I was watching an actor named Bob Harris who had come to Tokyo for a week to film whiskey commercials; instead, I could never escape the conclusion that I was just watching Bill Murray.

    In other words, I really admired the performance, but I didn't love it. Then again, that's kind of my reaction to the movie as a whole... The message of Murray's performance seemed to be "See! I can act much better than you thought I could!", and though I bought that message, I didn't think that it was enough to carry the film.

  • Scarlett Johansson's character never seemed fully developed to me. Yes, she came across as an extremely lonely and conflicted person; yes, she seemed like an appealing character. Nevertheless, I could never figure out why she was so lonely. There were times when I felt like shaking her and saying "Look, you're in Tokyo. Don't just sit around your hotel room with no pants on--go outside and do something!" (Did she really decide to go to Japan on a brief visit without giving any thought to what she'd actually do in the country?)

    What's more, Johansson's character had only been in Tokyo for a week. Her unhappiness would have made more sense if she'd been there six months and wouldn't be home for a long time, but it's not as if she was permanently isolated from the world. Murray's intense loneliness was more understandable: he didn't want to be in Tokyo, he was exhausted from several days of filming, and he might have been swamped by fans if he'd gone outside. Johansson, on the other hand, just seemed lost. I realize that issues in her marriage were supposed to be making her feel lonely, but in that case, there's more the film could have shown us. Her husband seemed like a complete cipher, as did every other secondary character in the movie. From what I can remember, I don't think that Johansson got much attention from her husband, but I didn't get the sense that she was all that interested in him, either. He seemed more like a plot device (an excuse for her loneliness) than like a real person.

  • A lot of the movie's humor could be summarized as "Japanese people are funny!" One minute the movie would make fun of their inability to differentiate l's and r's; then it would portray them as overly deferential (and kind of silly); then it would give us a scene of Bill Murray acting funny and a Japanese person laughing uproariously, as if Murray's new-found friend were a child. I found the movie's attitude toward Japan kind of off-putting.

What ties these criticisms together, I think, is the movie's attitude toward the audience. In each case, the movie seemed designed to make viewers feel proud of themselves--for recognizing just how good Murray's performance was, for seeing that Johansson's husband was a jerk, and for not making silly mistakes while speaking a foreign language. In other words, it seems like the ideal kind of movie for a viewer like Roger Ebert, a viewer with liberal sensibilities who likes to have his feelings of superiority confirmed by the films he watches. This doesn't make it a bad movie--as I said, it's worth seeing--but it does explain the fact that once a few reviewers had sung its praises, everyone else had to follow suit.

Posted by Ed at February 24, 2004 09:53 PM


Look at the nominees LIT is up against for Best Picture, & you'll see why it's getting so much attention. It at least FEELS like a serious film.

Lack of psychological depth was an even bigger problem in "The Virgin Suicides," where the parents' horrible treatment of their daughters was so unexplained as to seem alien.

Posted by: Andy at February 25, 2004 03:55 PM

"I found the movie's attitude toward Japan kind of off-putting."

Sorry, but the thing that makes the darn film so enjoyable is that there is not one scintilla of exaggeration in its portrayal of the denizens of Tokyo. It's attitude toward Japan was essentially photographic.

Posted by: Fred at February 29, 2004 11:06 PM
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