Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Twenty-One

I can definitely promise that my next non-movie review will not be poetry or short fiction.

Or it definitely will be.

I haven’t decided yet. We’ll see how that tricky mood thing is treating me in a few days.

**********
30 Day Movie Challenge

Day Twenty-One: Movie with Your Favorite Actor:

Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi

Really, I could have gone with just about any Bill Murray performance. Certainly he’s lent his talent to some awful movies, but I would argue that he has never once failed to deliver a memorable performance. In some cases he’s been the sole saving grace of an otherwise disastrous couple of hours. The consensus amongst a lot of people I know seems to be that Murray made his big comeback with Wes Anderson’s brilliant Rushmore (a movie I don’t think I will ever get tired of). Certainly, Rushmore was the first movie in years to showcase Murray’s comedic genius under the best circumstances possible (and the whole movie itself is wonderful, too). I would venture to say that you can find brilliant gems from Murray in lesser vehicles like Larger than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little. You can even find great moments from the man in questionable choices like Space Jam or Wild Things (okay, well, besides the other reason why some people still remember that movie).

The later-career classics though have come in the years since Rushmore. His association with Wes Anderson has proven to be very good to him, but arguably his biggest success since Rushmore is Lost in Translation. I don’t mind that. It’s probably not my favorite Murray film, but it’s pretty high along the list. Lost in Translation will always be one of those rare films in which my expectations were met and even succeeded. I wouldn’t be unhappy if that happened more often.

It was also difficult to choose just one actor. I have quite a few favorites that seem to be perennially tied for first. Bill Murray gets the nod. Simply because he was the first actor I ever remember really, really liking, and this was roughly twenty-two years ago, after seeing Ghostbusters for the first time (it’s insane what I remember sometimes–I can’t tell you what I did for Christmas five years ago, but I can vividly recall the first time I saw Ghostbusters).

I’m going with Lost in Translation because to me it’s the definitive Bill Murray movie. In the sense that it’s the one I would likely to show to someone who had never seen one of his movies before. My favorite Bill Murray movies are not necessarily the ones I would try out on someone straight away. It cemented that late-90’s comeback, and it gave him one of the most compelling roles of his career (so far, because he’s still surprising me even now).

I’ll never understand the opinion that this is simply a typical Murray performance. It’s true that a lot of what people like about the guy as an actor can be found throughout, but I’ve always believed his performance went a little deeper to display a subtle but profound range, within the general sort of character Murray most often plays. Murray’s character, Bob Harris, is very much in the vein of those personalities he played throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. A lot of that is very much in place, but I would suggest to anyone who either hasn’t seen the movie or hasn’t seen it in a while that they maybe pay a little more attention.


Those who do pay attention will receive a Japanese plush toy from Murray himself.

Bob Harris is older, far less manic and far more aware of how quickly everything has passed him by. His jokes in Lost in Translation come with a great sense of weariness, of realizing that very little of what he’s done in his life up to this point has come to mean much of anything. Humor can save your life on many occasions. It can lend something very essential to getting through the day in one piece. Unfortunately, that particular type of salvation can become more and more difficult to revisit as one gets older. That has always struck me as the heart of Harris when we first meet him in the film’s opening moments. It’s still funny, but in a quiet, minimal sort of way. There’s also a lot going on beneath the surface of that humor. That’s true of Murray’s performance, and it’s true of the film in general.

Sophia Coppola proved without question here that she’s a much better director than she is actress. She doesn’t strike as being as aggressive a director as her father. For the most part she simply hangs back, and lets the gorgeous Tokyo backdrop (I love movies that effortlessly romanticize the possibilities of a seemingly endless city of lights, buildings, people and thousands of sounds crashing together at once) and a terrific cast do what they do best. That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve credit. Someone still had to direct the kind of movie where the scenery is breathtaking, the pacing perfect and performances fantastic.

Nobody move, or they will become alert, and they will most likely flee into the woods.

Lost in Translation may star Bill Murray, but it’s not just his movie. This is still far and away my favorite Scarlett Johansson performance. She strikes a perfect balance with Murray, and the result of that is one of my favorite love stories. You can also just look at it as a depiction of a great, multi-layered friendship. Coppolla’s direction and Murray and Johansson’s performances leave plenty of room for ambiguity and interpretation for what exactly Murray and Johansson’s characters are thinking, and what they take away from their time together. Murray is an actor in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey ad. Johansson is a newlywed desperate for purpose. Everything else is a leisurely, wandering bit of storyteller that comes together at the end as something that only answers its questions if you look at the movie that way. You might not. You may just feel that things wandered around, characters interacted, nothing really changed and the movie came to an end. If that’s how you look at it, that’s fine, because you may still love it. The story doesn’t pound out plot point. It’s a style perfectly to actors like Murray and Johansson. Anna Farris (who I actually do like sometimes) and Giovanni Ribisi (as Johansson’s stunningly oblivious husband) round things out quite nicely.

Lost in Translation is likely to be the only time Murray ever scores an Oscar nomination. That’s too bad, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. It’s not going to stop him from lending something brilliant to anything he happens to appear in. I have a feeling that when it’s all said and done, people will be more apt to remember actors like Bill Murray, and not necessarily the guys who got the accolades he should have received. I could be wrong, but it already seems like more people remember Murray in Lost in Translation than Sean Penn in Mystic River. That’s just how it looks though. I guess history will have to pick up the slack. Something tells me history will be kind to Murray, and they will be especially kind to a role and movie as phenomenal as Lost in Translation.

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  1. I also like his role in Groundhog Day. As for Scarlet, she also gave a good performance in American Beauty.

    • markus kuhlmann
    • December 7th, 2011

    I second the Groundhog Day nod. Existential dread at it’s funniest….

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