Lost in Translation (2003)

Written and directed by: Sofia Coppola

Lost_in_Translation_posterA good movie is often one that lingers in your mind  long after you’ve seen it. There are exceptions. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy consists of long form conversations between two characters. While one might think that that’s about as mundane as it gets, the ability to reproduce believable human interactions is an impressive one. And while I couldn’t tell you if I have much in common with the Before series’ protagonists, there was something appealing about hanging out with them. Because of their mundanity, I can’t remember almost anything from the Before films. I will never forget, however, how much I enjoyed them.

Lost in Translation comes across as a variant of the Before movies: one coated in urbanity and melancholy. If that’s a gimmick you only want to see once, then by all means pick, one oeuvre or the other. If, however, you want more of that Before-feeling, than Lost in Translation is an excellent option.

The film tells the story of two people going through periods of jadedness. Actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is bored and alienated from his family, while appearing equally unexcited to be staying in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), meanwhile, is newly married and just out of college, and her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) already seems to have lost interest in spending time with her. Bob and Charlotte go on to seamlessly start a quasi-romantic friendship. 

That’s about the extent of the film’s story. One would be hardpressed to say Bob and Charlotte develop as characters in any big-sense. Their arc is instead a real one; they don’t overcome their problems, but they cope with them. And their coping mechanism is simple: finding a person to talk to.

Lost in Translation could be set in Tokyo for various reasons. The city may very well just have been a favorite pallet of  Sofia Coppola’s. The city also serves a functional role: it is not rife with English speakers, and as such Bob and Charlotte truly are devoid of people to talk to. More interestingly, the setting make obvious what otherwise might be too subtle an idea to express. The film is not about Tokyo, Tokyo is just a metaphor. While Bob is frustrated with literal translation problems (and the conflation of Ls and Rs in Japanese-English pronunciation), the film is far more concerned with our inability to translate thought processes. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Bob stars in a Japanese Whiskey commercial helmed by a (wannabe) visionary director (Yutaka Tadokoro). The director gives passionate instructions which are passed on to Bob in very simple translation. While many viewers will just pick up on situational humor and Bob’s impatience, engagement with the director adds another dimension to the scene’s air of frustration. The director has a lot to say, but because he directs mere commercials, and because his co-workers can’t (for various reasons) understand him, he goes unheard: untranslated.

The other moment from Lost in Translation that stuck with me comes when Bob’s Japanese co-workers as to take a photo with him while Charlotte looks on. This photo should be a good souvenir of Bob’s Japanese trip: it depicts what he went to Japan to do, and the people from Japan he engaged with. That Charlotte, an ephemeral friend, would go on to represent Japan in Bob’s mind might not make sense to a lot of people. But I suspect if more of us were honest about our experiences, a lot more of us would seem offbeat and out of place. It doesn’t matter what language we engage in: we’re always lost in translation. 

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola 

Written by: Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner

Peggy_Sue_Got_MarriedPerhaps you’ve seen the 2004 film Thirteen Going on Thirty. It’s a comedy about a girl who strives for acceptance from her school’s popular clique, but cruelly pushes away her geeky best friend in the process. Magic happens, she’s suddenly a thirty-year old woman, and she’s made to learn life lessons in the process. For me at least, its an example of a film rooted in a fairly fun gimmick, that doesn’t know how to overcome its predictability.

Before Thirteen Going on Thirty, however there was 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married. The film introduces Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) who attends her high school’s 25-year reunion while distraught over her impending divorce from Charlie (Nicolas Cage). Something about her mental state and location transports her back to the past. While Thirteen Going on Thirty derives its gags from a thirteen-year-old being in a thirty-year-old’s body, Peggy Sue Got Married goes for forty-three year old in a seventeen-year-old’s body. 

There’s another key difference between the two films, however. While Thirteen Going on Thirty uses two actors for the protagonist’s two ages, Peggy Sue Got Married sticks with Kathleen Turner. This is a choice that aligns the audience’s experience with that of Peggy Sue’s: at first it doesn’t quite make sense what’s going on, but gradually it become clear that she has gone back to another time, and appears, to the other characters, to be younger than she is.

While Thirteen Going on Thirty may have slightly more name recognition for those of my generation, I suspect Peggy Sue has the edge in terms of staying power. While both films traffic in clichés: jocks, popular girls and nerds, Peggy Sue’s characters are real enough to transcend their archetypes. While both films use age-changes to teach their protagonist’s a lesson, Peggy Sue does not start her movie as someone with an obvious moral flaw (ie denouncing your best friend for being uncool). Rather, she is someone who has gone through the understandable pain of a divorce and marital infidelity. The lesson she learns is not the simple idea of “be nice to those who are nice,” but is instead specific to her character’s situation.

Admittedly a significant part of Peggy Sue’s appeal, in addition to fifties nostalgia, is the presence of young Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey (the pair were in their early twenties). Consistent with the film’s style, the pair play both their teenaged and middle-aged selves. Unlike Peggy Sue, however, their characters’ appearances in the two different time periods are made to reflect their supposed ages.  While Carrey is largely a funny-faced side-figure, Cage’s performance is a definitive part of the film’s nuance. In the film’s stereotype-filled universe, Cage’s character is meant to be understood as a bad-boy: more on the jock then nerd end of the spectrum. But the deeper reality of his character subverts the presentation and plays a key roll in Peggy Sue’s own character arc.

Focusing on Cage’s performance may not be the most conventional approach to understanding Peggy Sue Got Married. Indeed, Cage’s acting style almost got him fired from the film by his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola. But regardless of what the film’s writer or director intended, I maintain that focusing on Charlie is the best way to appreciate Peggy Sue Got Married going forward. Peggy Sue  is a gimmicky, predictable movie, but there are a lot of gimmicky, predictable movies out there. Peggy Sue‘s quirk and character depth allow it to break the very mould that it fits so well. Thirteen Going on Thirty tells audiences what they know to be true about being grown up, but Peggy Sue Got Married reminds us of what we forgot about getting there.