Thursday, April 06, 2006

Lost in translation? How about just plain bad?

I just watched the movie Lost in Translation; it came warmly recommended, and was highly reviewed. It won an Academy Award and three Golden Globes. It was awful.

[Caution: Mild plot spoilers below, but don't worry, the movie is already rotten.]

The movie was set in Japan, and was supposed to be a subtle romantic comedy about two Americans (Bob and Charlotte) "finding themselves" in a foreign land. Instead, it was a racist, clunky movie about two nimwits who can think of nothing better to do on a visit to Japan than sit around a hotel bar and ponder cheating on their spouses (when they're not moping around their hotel rooms).

Bob and Charlotte are supposed to be undergoing a romantic self-exploration as they attempt to get away from awful significant others. However, their significant others are quite reasonable, and thus that entire plotline falls flat. Charlotte is sad that her husband isn't spending time with her (even though he does talk about his day when he gets back to the room); given that the only reason Charlotte's even in Japan is that her husband was going on a business trip, her complaints strike me as ridiculous. Bob's wife is apparently intended to be a nag, but she's just busy staying home trying to take care of their children, work on remodeling their house, and go to her own job. A big deal is made of Bob's wife sending carpet samples to Japan so that Bob can choose the color of his study's carpet; I'd view that as extremely thoughtful (she's trying to make sure he's involved at home even though he's out of the country), but Bob is put off by it.

Furthermore, Bob and Charlotte, with whom we're supposed to sympathize, epitomize the stupid American who can't be bothered with trying to understand the "weird" foreign culture they're in:
  • At one point Bob and Charlotte say they're going out for sushi, but end up in a shabu-shabu restaurant. Then, after being flummoxed by the menu, they complain "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?" Um, a shabu-shabu restaurant? If they didn't want that kind of food, why'd they go there?
  • Bob and Charlotte spend a lot of time sitting in a Japanese bar complaining about Japan. While the servers don't react visibly, it's likely (or at least possible) that they understood Bob and Charlotte, but were too polite to antagonize a paying customer.
  • During one of Charlotte's visits to a temple, she's shown quickly clomping along stepping stones in a water garden; the stones in these gardens are typically placed so as to encourage the walker to go slowly and appreciate the surroundings. Later, she's shown tying a fortune to a tree; of course, she wouldn't have been able to read the fortune.
  • When Bob and Charlotte do finally go out, they spend their time drinking, dancing, and singing English karaoke; they could have done that in the US.
  • Bob is being paid more than $2 million for a few days' work in Japan, but he can't take the time to ask the hotel concierge to arrange for a translator when they have to take Charlotte to a hospital. Instead, it's an opportunity for more wacky cross-cultural hijinx with monolingual Japanese doctors and staff who apparently can't tell (or don't care) that these patients can't understand them. (It doesn't occur to Bob to hire a translator for the rest of the trip, either.)
  • When Bob and Charlotte enter the hospital, they grab a wheelchair from the entrance and then proceeded to do wheelies with it in the lobby.
  • Never once does either Bob or Charlotte make any attempt to learn the language, except for Bob saying "kanpai" (cheers), yet they mock the Japanese characters' imperfect English.
Don't get me wrong; I don't mind entertainment products focused around despicable people. For goodness' sake, I loved the TV show Oz, in which just about every character was (or should have been) a convicted felon. I just don't like it when scriptwriters attempt to compel the audience to feel that the despicable characters are somehow better and more deserving of sympathy than other characters.

By reading this Wikipedia page after watching the movie, I discovered that it was supposed to be a comedy. The only attempts at humor I saw were jokes based on stereotypes of Japan (look - Japanese people are short; look - they pronounce r's and l's similarly; look - they speak an odd language very quickly; look - they do water aerobics; look - they eat odd food). This excellent review, and this protest site, both make the same points.

How this movie won an Academy Award for best writing is beyond me.

And can someone tell me why the movie started with a long scene consisting solely of Charlotte's unmoving butt? I should have just turned it off at that ...

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