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We’ll Never Know Everything About ‘Lost in Translation’

Just like the final words of Sofia Coppola’s now-20-year-old film, the best parts of the movie are left indecipherable

Focus Features/Ringer illustration

When Bill Murray was struggling to connect as a featured player on the second season of Saturday Night Live, he decided to get personal: At the urging of Lorne Michaels, he addressed the show’s audience directly, taking responsibility for his rocky start. “I don’t think I’m making it on the show,” said the then-27-year-old comedian, staring the camera down from behind a desk with the seriousness of a cheating husband, or maybe a disgraced politician. “My friends say, ‘How come they’re giving you all those parts that aren’t funny?’” he went on, before taking a deep, wincing breath and delivering the punch line: “It’s not the material. It’s me.”

Not only did Murray’s apology get big laughs—and alleviate the genuine pressure the former Second City star was feeling in the shadow of brilliant and acclaimed cast members like John Belushi and Gilda Radner—but it clarified something about his comic persona that’s been true for nearly 50 years: When it comes to Bill Murray, the material doesn’t really matter, because he is the material. For better or for worse, Bill Murray will always be Bill Murray, and that’s exactly how we want him. Some actors are great because they can stretch their talents, but Murray’s genius lies in refusing to give an inch. He isn’t good at reaching out because he emits the aura of someone who doesn’t seem to think anything is worth holding on to in the first place. He is the modern master of blasé resignation. Think of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, casually no-selling the state-of-the-art effects swirling around him. Or Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, a small-town Sisyphus marinating in delusions of grandeur (“I’m a god … not the God”). Or the gleefully cynical camp counselor in Meatballs, simultaneously pumping up and deflating his teenage charges with the rousing, nihilistic battle cry of beta-male hipsters through the ages: “It just doesn’t matter!”

One way to look at Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which turns 20 years old this month, is as a movie that puts that callow mantra to the test. Sleepwalking through a neon-rainbow Tokyo on an assignment to film a big-budget whiskey commercial, Murray’s Bob Harris is a movie star approaching his own lonely supernova. At least a decade past his prime and only semi-happily married—his wife appears in the film as a disembodied voice on the telephone—he looks slumped, rumpled, and beaten, like he might implode at any moment. At the promo shoot, he’s sullen and sarcastic, a seasoned pro running on self-loathing autopilot; back in his hotel room, he fends off (unwanted) female escorts and faxes from home with the same droopy irritability. It’s only when he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a fellow American pulling jet-lagged all-nighters in five-star surroundings, that Bob’s charisma clicks and we get a sense of why strangers might recognize him in the first place. Crammed into a high-rise karaoke booth with a group of locals, he serenades his new platonic pal with a song whose lyrics hint equally at his own middle-aged malaise and at a friendship that contains anxious, taboo multitudes.

The choice of art-rock pioneers Roxy Music’s swooniest and most yearning single as Bob’s weapon of would-be seduction is beautifully apt and pointed: Released in 1982, “More Than This” is two years older than Johansson. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s karaoke selection, “Brass in Pocket,” is a hymn to adolescent overconfidence—the perfect pick for a young woman who’s just pretending (or is she?) to flirt in return. If a sense of curation is the one common denominator of the important American directors who emerged after Quentin Tarantino, Coppola is as good as anybody at finding the right places on-screen for her enthusiasms: fashion, music, cinema, poetry, and other assorted ephemera. The most important fetish object in Lost in Translation is surely Murray himself, without whom the movie would not have been made; in a 2010 interview with The Daily Beast, Coppola recounted writing the role of Bob Harris for her “fantasy hero” and then pursuing the star for months through telephone calls and mutual friends before getting him to sign off (and even then worrying he wouldn’t show up for the shoot). But Murray’s presence wouldn’t mean nearly as much if all the other elements of Lost in Translation weren’t so perfectly calibrated in counterpoint to his bristling, deadpan gravitas—or if Coppola, who was 31 at the time of filming, hadn’t had it in her to understand or convey the romantic urgency lurking in an older soul.

Coppola famously wrote the screenplay for Lost in Translation in response to her own experiences living and working in Tokyo after dropping out of university in her early 20s; she settled on the Park Hyatt Tokyo as a setting after using it as a home base to promote her feature debut, The Virgin Suicides. That film’s dreamy, suburban enigma premiered in Cannes in 1999 and ultimately outclassed Sam Mendes’s similarly themed—and Oscar-winning—American Beauty; in lieu of an overbearing statement about a broken, perverse boomer generation, The Virgin Suicides used a small-scale tragedy to suggest more elusive mysteries about youth, gender, and female solidarity. Coppola deserved—and got—plenty of credit for translating Jeffrey Eugenides’s source novel to the screen, but the fact that Lost in Translation was created from scratch meant that she was playing for higher stakes, auteur-wise. While the film was mostly well reviewed en route to a set of major Oscar nominations, any criticisms that it romanticized its protagonists’ luxury-class solipsism necessarily returned to Coppola—as did concerns about the 30-year age gap between the characters and critiques of the racist depiction of Japanese characters and culture.

Such criticisms were in evidence in 2003 but not in the foreground of the movie’s reception; as film culture has shifted and diversified in the ensuing decades, so have the lenses for sociological analysis. Considering that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was recently raked over the coals for pairing a 25-year-old woman with a high school teen, the gulf between Bob and Charlotte would seem like a hanging offense—except that the reluctance (verging on impossibility) to ever consummate their relationship is where Lost in Translation locates its vibrating melancholy. What cuts like a double-edged sword is the feeling that Bob and Charlotte are meeting at exactly the wrong time as potential lovers and exactly the right time as soulmates. The question of whether they really have to choose is pressurized on all sides by the feelings of others, and by the conventions of Hollywood movies, which Coppola happily toys with but refuses to be ruled by (a scene where Charlotte gets jealous and petulant about Bob’s one-night stand with a lounge singer is perfectly calibrated for cringiness in all directions).

The matter of the film’s racism is more troubling, and it leaves less room for interpretation. In 2017, after Coppola’s polarizing remake of the Civil War–era thriller The Beguiled bowed at Cannes, MTV revisited Lost in Translation as “an insufferable, racist mess,” and in 2021, The Stanford Daily’s Nadia Jo inventoried the film’s “egregious” offenses, starting with how it forced viewers to “adopt the white gaze and look down on another race.” For detractors, most of Coppola’s representational choices were not only questionable, but also insidious in how cozily they flattered the perspectives and prejudices of the liberal metropolitan audience that helped make the movie an art-house hit (with over $100 million in receipts against a tiny $4 million budget). Certainly, the scene where a bewildered Bob is exhorted to “lip” the stockings of a playacting call girl feels uncomfortable, though the case can be made that the joke is more complex than it seems and that it plays up the absurdity of such exoticized stereotypes. Elsewhere, though, the ethnic gags do seem to be at the expense of the locals—specifically, how their gestures of hospitality metastasize into annoyance for newcomers. But even this is tricky: The best argument that Lost in Translation is trying to be a movie about culture shock instead of using culture shock to score easy points comes in an early scene in which Charlotte visits a temple and watches a ritual in silence. Later, on a phone call back to the U.S., she’s heartbroken—and almost furious—that it meant nothing to her. Where she had hoped to be moved, she was merely confused; you can travel to the other side of the world, but you can’t outrun your own insecurity.

It’s telling that while Murray was roundly (and rightly) celebrated for his performance, viewers and critics were less sure of what to make of Johansson, whose role is more slippery, starting with our awareness of her as a surrogate for Coppola. Charlotte is very much a stereotype—a poor little rich girl on the verge of adulthood, looking for means of self-actualization—and Johansson has one of the great thousand-yard stares, connoting not stupidity but something more refined, the self-hypnosis of somebody coming to terms with what it’s like to live in their own head. During one of her late-night chats with Bob, she jokes about her abortive attempts at expressing herself through writing and photography, noting such ambitions don’t make her special; given Coppola’s obvious gifts, such gripes could be taken as disingenuous, although the even-keeled nature of Bob’s responses keeps the self-pity from congealing too thickly.

Had Lost in Translation been made 10 years later, Charlotte’s glassy-eyed ennui would probably have been expressed very differently—perhaps via social media updates—and she definitely would have been shown scrolling on her phone at some point. The technology in Lost in Translation is dated—fax machines and flip phones, plus key plot points delivered into answering machines—but the visual and tonal vocabulary looks retrospectively ahead of its time: There’s something palpably proto-Instagram-ish about some of Coppola’s compositions, a by-product of her aforementioned curatorial sensibility. Even more than wealth, what those steel-and-glass hotel interiors convey is a feeling of being on display at all times, whether one wants to be or not.

The defiant ambiguity of the film’s opening shot, which frames the then-17-year-old actor’s pantie-clad posterior like a still life—or, given the setting, maybe an Ozu-ian pillow shot—remains difficult to decode, especially in light of its subject’s subsequent evolution into a sexual icon; a decade later, Jonathan Glazer would shadow Johansson through Scotland with a set of hidden cameras for Under the Skin, changing the focus from the beauty of alienation to a literal alien invasion. Perhaps Coppola was just trying to get the obvious out in the open—to acknowledge the collective desire to leer at her star and throw it back in our faces before the movie had even really begun. After all, such self-reflexive gestures are very much a part of Coppola’s arsenal: Consider that the director credit for 2013’s The Bling Ring features her name on-screen next to a bespoke necklace whose lettering spells out “rich bitch” in hot pink, a nice way of prodding the misogyny that would ask her to constantly check her privilege as Hollywood royalty in a different way than, say, Jason Reitman.

Coppola has been cagey about the extent to which Lost in Translation is not just autobiographical, but nakedly personal: It’s obvious from the jump that Charlotte’s photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), is a doppelgänger for Coppola’s then-partner, Spike Jonze, and also that Anna Faris’s waylaid starlet, Kelly, is a stand-in for Jonze’s Being John Malkovich star Cameron Diaz. (In 2014, Diaz supposedly “forgave” Coppola for her depiction in the film, although all parties have officially denied any friction; meanwhile, Coppola admitted this year that she still hasn’t seen Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi comedy Her, which featured Rooney Mara as a character who may or may not be modeled after her.) Whatever its genesis, Faris’s hilarious portrait of bubbly party-girl extroversion—including, in a nice bit of mirroring, a bit of karaoke—might seem ungenerous except that we’re clearly seeing her through Charlotte’s jaded, suspicious eyes. If Coppola was airing grievances, she was doing so obliquely. And beyond the film’s obviously accomplished craft—including and especially Lance Acord’s shimmering, color-coded cinematography—the main reason Lost in Translation endures is because of all the things it doesn’t actually come out and say: the way it drags certain tight-lipped 20th-century art-cinema traditions into our overemphatic present tense and lets them (not) speak for themselves.

Exhibit A, of course, is the film’s final sequence, in which Bob and Charlotte embrace in the middle of a crowded street and share a hushed—which is to say inaudible—goodbye. Over the years, plenty of people and publications have tried to answer the question of what Murray whispered in Johansson’s ear, whether by lip-reading or through behind-the-scenes intel. Theories range from a declaration of true love to a goofy non sequitur; the rumor has always been that Murray mixed the word up between takes and that whatever it was, the impact was heightened by the fact that the scene was a genuine farewell for the actors as well, coming at the end of a long and grueling shoot away from home. But to return to Meatballs, it just doesn’t matter: Coppola’s intention was to punctuate her millennial riff on Brief Encounter with a question mark, so she did. That this deceptively airy movie is substantial enough to support any number of interpretations without being defined or undone by them is its legacy as much as, and hopefully more than, the problems that may come with being the rare contemporary American movie with a long shelf life. We’ll never know what Bob said to Charlotte. Which is why we’ll always want to.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.