The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

by Jesse Walker

Sunday, September 21, 2003
LOST IN TRANSLATION: The easy, lazy way to describe a Sofia Coppola movie is to compare it to a music video. That's not really right, though: videos usually put their images in the service of their music, while Coppola's films are visually driven, her poppy-ethereal soundtracks simply setting the mood for her montages. If you must make a musical metaphor, they're more like an extended DJ set, with unexpected songs dropped into the mix and transformed by their sudden new context. In The Virgin Suicides, Styx's "Come Sail Away" suddenly feels nothing like a rock-radio dinosaur. In Lost in Translation, the director works a similar witching on karaoke performances of the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders, Bryan Ferry and Elvis Costello. Few Hollywood films are as dreamlike as Coppola's, with her narratives that sometimes seem driven more by ambience than by plot, but where every step of the story somehow feels inevitable.

Lost in Translation stars Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, and I hope I'm not seen as giving short shrift to Johansson, who is excellent, if I say more here about Murray. Looking back on his career, it's striking how often he's given good performances even in lousy movies. Rent an otherwise forgettable flick like Meatballs or Scrooged, and just watch the way he works so hard to be funnier than the script. This hasn't stopped as he's taken less comic roles in more respectable pictures. I thought Cradle Will Rock was a confused and overpraised mash note to a bunch of Stalinist hacks, but there in the middle of the mess was an amazing dramatic performance from Murray; the one thing, really, that made the movie worth watching at all. Add in his genuinely good pictures -- from fun light fare like Stripes and Quick Change to modern classics like Groundhog Day and Rushmore -- and you have a body of work as excellent as any other actor's.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that Murray has never seemed interested in begging to be loved. Like Dabney Coleman or W.C. Fields, he's often likeable despite himself; the prototypical Bill Murray character is a charming asshole. Sometimes, as in Groundhog Day, he's redeemed by the close of the film; other times, as in Stripes, his essential nature remains unchanged to the end. As Murray moved into more dramatic work, he didn't look for the sort of crowd-pleasing sap embraced by so many other comedians eager for respect. (Hello, Robin Williams.) He kept taking on unappealing yet strangely sympathetic roles: the mobster in Mad Dog and Glory, the reactionary ventriloquist in Cradle Will Rock, the bitter old rich man in Rushmore. Between his natural charisma and his willingness to play rogues, his characters arrive already armed with more than one dimension.

And then his abilities as an actor add more flesh to the body. There's a scene early in Coppola's film where Murray is making a whiskey commercial. Everyone on the set but him speaks Japanese, and he has no idea what's going on. He tells us this with small movements of his jaw and eyes, and every one of those little facial ticks elicits an enormous laugh from the audience.

I'm not an actor, but I'm pretty sure of this: It can't be easy to make people laugh just by moving your pupils slightly to the left or right. Bill Murray is a remarkably good performer. And this is a remarkably good movie.


posted by Jesse 1:29 AM
. . .

. . .

For past entries, click here.


. . .