Lonely Souls in a Strange Land: Lost in Translation Maps the Way

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation , from her own screenplay, has been universally acclaimed as a triple triumph-for her two inspired leads, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and for Ms. Coppola herself. Following her debut effort, The Virgin Suicides (1999), Ms. Coppola has not only conquered the sophomore jinx for auteurs, but has transcended it with a sure-fire Oscar contender. She has also successfully erased the bitter memories of the abuse she suffered as an actress when she uttered the one word-”Dad?”-in the violent climax of her father’s The Godfather: Part III (1990), just before dying from a bullet meant for Michael Corleone. I’ve always wondered how Winona Ryder (originally cast for the part) would have delivered that accursed word. Or Vanessa Redgrave-or, for that matter, the legendary Italian actress Duse herself. At least they would have escaped the calumny that was heaped on poor Sofia by the critics, mostly for being the famed director’s daughter. Maybe the problem was with the C-word itself-we’ll never know.

In compensation, Ms. Coppola can now claim credit for the exquisitely nuanced portrayals of her two leads: Mr. Murray as the fading Hollywood action-movie star, Bob Harris, in Tokyo to film a Japanese whiskey commercial; and Ms. Johansson as Charlotte, the young, neglected wife of a shallow, narcissistic celebrity photographer, distractedly played by Giovanni Ribisi.

Mr. Murray’s seemingly effortless projection of inner turmoil comes as no surprise to me after his remarkably undervalued performances in Tootsie (1982) and Groundhog Day (1993). I try to schedule Tootsie every year for my students at Columbia-it’s a great example of a comedy that works without trying too hard-and when I do, Mr. Murray gets the biggest laughs with the fewest lines. In Groundhog Day , another deeply funny American comedy of recent decades, Mr. Murray’s character displays an uncommonly anachronistic courtliness and vulnerability in his love for a woman.

Mr. Murray brings some of that same reticence to his character in Lost in Translation . The result is that rarity of rarities, a grown-up romance based on the deliberate repression of sexual gratification-as if the old Production Code were still in force. It’s worth noting that at a time when independent films are exploding with erotic images edging ever closer to outright pornography, Ms. Coppola and her colleagues have replaced sexual facility with emotional longing, without being too coy or self-congratulatory in the process.

One of the stylistic coups of the film is its long, fruitful silences. The characters’ feelings are given room to develop, and hence are free from the need to exchange meaningless snappy dialogue of the makeout variety. Charlotte visits a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, but she never becomes immersed in Japanese civilization: She’s simply trying to ease the effects of her loneliness and ongoing insomnia. Bob is similarly afflicted by an uneasy restlessness, though his presence in a strange land with a strange language is superficially more purposive than Charlotte. (After graduating with a philosophy degree from Yale, she’s tagging along with her workaholic husband, not knowing what to do next-except maybe writing.) When he’s getting to know her, Bob jests only semi-facetiously that there are big bucks in philosophy, but that she should stick to writing.

Of course, Mr. Murray gets all the laughs with his exquisite timing and wry delivery, but Ms. Johansson makes an eloquent and charismatic listener; it’s in her alert and intelligent responses to Bob’s malaise that his passions toward her are ignited. In one scene, Bob carries her to bed, less Rhett clutching Scarlett than a father putting a beloved daughter to bed. Some reviewers have assumed that Bob’s wife back home must be an aggravating shrew whom he longs to escape, mainly on the basis of some maddeningly trivial long-distance calls. But Bob waxes eloquent with Charlotte about his children, and both intuitively understand they have no future together, other than their moments in this dream-like “other place.”

If you see Lost in Translation based on the critical hyperbole it’s received, you may be surprised at how leisurely and low-key it seems. But its apparent lethargy is deceptive, and by the end of the movie, the accumulated emotions tower over Tokyo’s skyline as a majestic metaphor.

Woody in the Wings

Anything Else was written and directed by Woody Allen, but you’d never know it from the coming attractions. After almost 40 years of making us laugh-if only intermittently of late-Mr. Allen has been deemed by DreamWorks to be box-office poison, and hence his conspicuous absence from the publicity engine that hopes to trade on the film’s two young stars, keeping craggy old Woody hidden in the wings. But on watching his latest creation, you know immediately that you’re witnessing a Woody Allen number, with his cavalcade of familiar routines accompanied by slightly jazzy arrangements of great pop songs from the 30′s and 40′s. So DreamWorks’ delusion-that paying customers could be hoodwinked into thinking that they’re about to see a juvenile romantic comedy-is quickly dispelled by the first sour notes of Woodsian disenchantment. Not that I minded particularly. Trying to make people laugh for so long can take its toll on even the most cheerful artist, and no one ever accused Mr. Allen of being especially cheerful. Also, as an auteurist, I can never forget that Mr. Allen has given us Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), anymore than I could’ve forgotten Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and TheMagnificent Ambersons (1942) in light of his declining talents in later years. Hence, if I choose to be kinder to the Woodman than my colleagues, it’s because I have ample precedents for seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty.

Curiously, Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci come out better than I imagined after being compelled to play out the movie’s sadomasochistic tag line, “In any relationship, one person always does the heavy lifting.” Mr. Biggs’ Jerry Falk certainly fits the heavy-lifter profile in his one-sided “romance” with Ms. Ricci’s terminally bitchy, dishonest, treacherous Amanda, a Noël Coward name for a hip-hop ho. And I haven’t yet mentioned her coke-sniffing, equally promiscuous mother, Paula, played by a badly miscast Stockard Channing, who is too much of a no-nonsense actress to play such an irresponsible creature. To illustrate the dysfunction of this mother-daughter team: Paula is installed by her daughter in Jerry’s private office space (along with a space-consuming piano) so she can pursue a failed singing career as a lounge act.

Since Amanda and Paula are the only important female characters in the film, Mr. Allen’s attitude toward women seems to have hardened considerably since the glory days of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. One could still see hope for Mr. Allen in Téa Leoni’s sweetly deadpan incarnation in Hollywood Ending (2002), but with Amanda and Paula, Mr. Allen has plunged into the murky depths of misogyny.

Yet Ms. Ricci is far from uninteresting in her sadistic flightiness. Her wide-eyed mischievousness would be intolerable in real life, but onscreen she exudes a powerful erotic charge that’s somehow beyond good and evil. But even more impressive, both on and off the screen, is Mr. Biggs as Jerry. A David Schwimmer type with more charm and a welcome calmness, Mr. Biggs plays the sensitive doormat to three excruciatingly manipulative monsters: Mr. Allen’s David Dobel, a comedy writer and public-school teacher with violent tendencies; Danny DeVito’s Harvey, a hapless showbiz agent with joke-writing Jerry as his last remaining client; and, of course, Amanda. Jerry is even terrorized by his uncommunicative shrink (William Hill).

Everyone who’s seen Anything Else , including me, considers one of the funniest scenes in the film the act of vandalism conducted by the violent Mr. Dobel against a bullying car driver who has stolen his parking space. But the implications become disturbing as Mr. Dobel goes on a rant against the enemies of the Jews.

But Jerry takes his mentor’s madness in stride, as well as Amanda’s betrayal and his agent’s pathetic posturing-all products of Mr. Allen’s newly jaundiced view of New York City, which has never seemed so unappealing. And where is Jerry going to escape all this? Why, Hollywood, of course-a place Woody wouldn’t be caught dead in back in his golden days. Ultimately, it’s to Mr. Bigg’s credit as an actor that he makes the move seem so un-Woodyesque and perfectly legal.

Teacher’s Pet

Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have ( Être et Avoir ) contains some of the most stirring footage I have ever seen on the act and art of teaching children. Mr. Philibert searched all across France for a single-class school, a type of school still found in France that brings together all the children from one village around a single teacher, from kindergarten age to those about to move on to middle school. Mr. Philibert and his three-man crew observed life in one such school from December 2000 to June 2001, with special attention on the interaction between the teacher, Georges Lopez, and his 10 pupils of various ages. There are no magical or technical solutions to be found here for our current crises in education. Mr. Lopez seems to be a wonderful teacher, but a very conservative one as far as the curriculum is concerned: There’s much teaching by rote, which is a no-no in many progressive circles. But what’s most impressive about Mr. Lopez is how deeply and profoundly he respects the minds and feelings of his students. He respects even their instincts of rebelliousness and subtly trains them to think about their problems. The children themselves are predictably mesmerizing with their mixture of tutored and untutored expressions. The movie covers a term in their educational lives, but we spend a lot of time in the rural countryside, with its breathtaking vistas of mountains and valleys. There’s a certain price to be paid in artistic diffuseness with these scenic excursions. But when all is said and done, Mr. Philibert resists the pitfalls of sentimentality and overarticulation.

If the film confirms anything at all, it’s that all education is an emotional and intellectual transaction between teacher and student-one too often ignored by outside reformers, who feel a conscious or unconscious contempt for teachers’ not having done more with their lives. Little do they know.