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(Credit: Focus Films)


Why 'Lost In Translation' is Bill Murray's greatest performance

Sofia Coppola‘s 2003 outing Lost in Translation is sacrosanct for a plethora of reasons. Whether that be the ethereal, shoegazing soundtrack, the grand cinematography or the thematic connotations of the script, it is a dense film, and every time you watch it, you manage to take something different from the experience. This emotive complexity has added to how revered it has become. 

One could even go as far as to say that Lost in Translation is perhaps a tad overrated given the allegations of Orientalist perspectives on Japan and style over substance. Whilst the former is indeed true, the lesser is not so much, and this is the beauty of the film, its subtlety. Those who wager it is style over substance, we’d argue need to slow down and let the film wash over them. Weighted but not in your face, it straddles the line between arthouse and rom-com expertly. In fact, this speaks volumes of Sofia Coppola’s unique way of approaching cinema, but that is a story for another day.

Of course, there is one other standout element of the film that has endeared it to fans since its release – Bill Murray’s performance as protagonist Bob Harris. Given he was well into his middle-age at the time of filming, Murray’s portrayal of Harris, a fading movie star in Japan to promote Suntory Whiskey, was nothing short of perfect. It is physically impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. Whilst we’re here, it’s worth noting the brilliant work of 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson in the mature role of Charlotte, the film’s other estranged American, and the narrative yin to Harris’ yang.

Bill Murray’s credentials as an actor have never been in doubt, although the majority of us view him as strictly a comedic actor. After starring on SNL during its golden late 1970s era, he went on to star in some of the most iconic comedies of the past 50 years. CaddyshackStripesGhostbusters, Groundhog Day, Kingpin, Murray is the king of deadpan delivery. In addition to this, in the ’90s, he moved into the more quirky realm of comedy, delivering some of his best deadpan roles yet. His role as rich industrialist Herman Blume in Wes Anderson’s 1998 coming of age comedy Rushmore is one of his finest.

It was actually Rushmore that helped launch a “second career” for Murray, a rebirth where he branched into the more experimental realms of cinema, culminating in his status today as an icon of independent cinema. It was this film, to all intents and purposes, that would set him on his path to starring in Lost in Translation.

Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola on the set of Lost in Translation. (Credit: Focus Features)

It is not ridiculous to posit that Lost in Translation is Bill Murray’s greatest performance. Whilst it might not have the iconic theme tune like Ghostbusters or the classic narrative device like Groundhog Day, the film is Murray at his best as an actor. He remains characteristically deadpan throughout, all the while managing to convey the subtleties of the script whilst managing to embody its central themes of human alienation and disconnection within the modern era. 

Amongst the beautiful and colourful backdrop of modern Tokyo, the downsides of the technologically advanced future are laid bare. Murray’s character is almost like an alien from another time, juxtaposed to all of those around him, and when you scratch beneath the surface, he is a walking, talking critique of the futility of westernised, modern ideals.  

It is safe to say, Lost in Translation is also a critical take on the fleeting nature of romance in the modern era. With life moving at breakneck speed, the connections we make with people, particularly against the frenetic backdrop of city life, are to be cherished as they are rare and meaningful nuggets of natural human existence. They leave an impact on you, something that the film perfectly mirrors.

Murray’s performance is the actor at his best. Honest, dense, and conveying every possible human emotion, feelings of jetlag and the mental inertia it creates, positioned in stark contrast to the pace of Tokyo life, are ones we can all empathise with. Furthermore, Murray takes the best elements of his earlier film career and marries them with the actor spawned from his “rebirth”. Murray’s addition to the film was so key that Coppola has mentioned on numerous occasions that she wouldn’t have made it without him.

Always an affecting viewing, Lost in Translation is one of those rare films that manages to leave an indelible mark on you after every watch. Murray’s performance is almost effortless, and watching him as Bob Harris, we get an almost fly on the wall perspective, making us feel that we are actually watching the real Bill Murray go about his day to day life and not Coppola’s fictional character. His performance is marvellous. Who can forget the array of emotions conveyed in the final scene, as Jesus and the Mary Chain’s ‘Just Like Honey’ gradually enters the mix? Making the most substantial claim for his best film, it’s always worth a revisit.