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I hadn’t planned to waste a word on Sofia Coppola’s forgettable trifle Lost in Translation. This slight, deadpan film, however, has been heralded as a major work (cross-reference A.O. Scott’s delirious slobbering over it in the New York Times article “Bill Murray’s Art of Losing”), thus patriotic duty compels me to proclaim the movie a bomb.

In images lushly composed by Lance Acord, whose impressionistic distortions of city light against reflective surfaces offer respite for the eyes, Lost in Translation traces the nocturnal Tokyo wanderings of a washed-up actor and a bored young wife. The actor has come to Japan to pose for whiskey ads; there he meets a mousy nonentity (youthful enough to be his daughter) who’s married to an unbearably ugly fashion photographer, and it’s Coppola’s creepy conceit that the two become great pals whilst singing Karaoke.

Coppola never shapes her slender material into anything. The film lounges interminably in a hotel bar; it trots out cringe-inducing Asian stereotypes not seen since the heyday of Jerry Lewis. Yet there are hacks for whom such nothingness counts as a virtue; hence the cartwheels turned over Translation by The Stranger’s Bradley Steinbacher who—sharing his knowledge of movie criticism clichés—deems Lost “one of those rare films that affects you . . . long after you’ve left the theatre.” Likewise with her husband’s Adaptation, the writer-director has cobbled together a movie only self-appointed hipsters could love, the celluloid equivalent of a reading list that’s all Eggers and Sedaris.

Scaly-skinned Bill Murray and smooth-featured Scarlett Johansson make an unprepossessing duo at best. When they finally smooch, you may wish for Pepto-Bismal. Murray, who has had a renaissance in recent years (I loved his work as the ventriloquist in Cradle Will Rock as well as his Polonius in the Ethan Hawke Hamlet), slides back into stale, glib mannerisms that were funny a quarter-century ago. Misdirected by Coppola to remain in stasis, Murray faxes in a performance so flat, so enervated, so unvaryingly one-note, it’s almost manifest destiny that he’ll be awarded a Best Actor prize from the New York Film Critics’ Circle. Johansson skirts by on blankness (in approved monoculture “style”) until she attempts to sing The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket.” That irresistible song revs up, only to have its energy sapped by a pipsqueak in the space where Chrissie Hynde should be. And that, more or less, makes an apt aural metaphor for the presence of absence that defines Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking, a “Mystery Achievement,” to borrow another Pretenders title, if ever there was one. – NPT

Originally published in Vigilance, October 2003.

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