Lost in Translation, American Splendor, The Station Agent (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Ordinary Magic

(Lost in Translation, American Splendor: Best of 2003)

There’s a magic in movies, though most often for me it’s the blustery magic of larger-than-life adventure, of worlds strange and alien and fantastical either right next to our own or light years away, the kind that sweeps me away from reality. When they work, these magical films, when they’re done right, when it’s Peter Jackson, say, or Steven Spielberg, the magic springs from the inevitable sense of discovery, of learning about things you never knew existed, even if they only exist onscreen and in the imagination.

But there’s a rarer magic, too, one that I don’t see so often, one that springs from looking at reality with a fresh eye and finding the magic of discovery in ourselves, like the extraordinary and the ordinary are one and the same. To walk away from a film full of that kind of magic is to feel like we’re part of something secret and mysterious and special just in being alive. To walk away from a film full of that kind of magic is to walk away on air, like you’re lighter and smarter and wiser and more fully human for having seen it.

Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is, in this way, one of the most astonishing films I’ve ever seen. Delicate and longing, tender and bittersweet, it takes experiences we’ve all had — the minor crisis of hitting a personal speed bump that makes us reexamine our lives, the transitory friendships we form when we’re surrounded by strangers — and just by looking at them full on, without embellishment or commentary, turns them into something profound, something that makes you rethink the similar moments you’ve had yourself.

It isn’t that Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), who wrote as well as directed, sneaks up on Bob and Charlotte and lets us spy on them so much as she insinuates us into their relationship, almost as if we meet them by the same random chance and odd circumstance as they meet each other. He’s an almost washed-up Hollywood actor, huge in the 1970s and now shilling whiskey in Japan; Bill Murray (The Royal Tenenbaums, Charlie’s Angels), in what I have to suspect is his most personal performance ever, carries Bob’s fame like an albatross, his cross to bear, the real man he is buried under a construct that’s wheeled far out of his control, creating expectations that separate him from almost everyone around him. The weariness with which Bob disentangles himself from a couple of enthusiastic fans in a bar is terribly sad in all that it wordlessly says: that this is a man no longer able to interact with humanity.

But then there’s Charlotte, a recent college grad in Tokyo with her photographer husband, who’s cheerfully abandoned her for his work. She wanders the hotel aimlessly, hanging out at the pool or the bar, where she first encounters Bob. Reversing the usual way of casting young characters, Scarlett Johansson (Eight Legged Freaks, An American Rhapsody) is younger than the character she plays — barely out of high school, she beautifully, morosely inhabits a woman married long enough to have grown disenchanted with the romance of marriage, a woman at a more adult crossroads than we might expect an 18-year-old actor to comprehend. Charlotte doesn’t approach Bob as a fan — we’re not even sure at first if she recognizes his face, but it’s certain she recognizes something in his demeanor that they share, an inexpressible dissatisfaction with their lives.

The odd friendship they strike up can only be called a platonic romance, one intensified by the isolation these two Americans experience in the alien culture of Japan, highlighted for us by Coppola by the lack of subtitles for the Japanese being spoken all around them. Even in one scene featuring a translator for Bob, on the set of the Suntory whiskey commercial he’s shooting, the disconnect is clear… and highly amusing, as the extensive instructions from the commercial’s director in Japanese become terse directives in English.

But nothing is lost in the translation of bringing this naturalistic tale to life, stripping the clichéd “male midlife crisis” bare and turning it into a turning point that we all, male and female, can identify with. Redolent of regrets and might-have-beens, this is a masterpiece of understatement and honesty.

American Splendor
There’s not a moment that fake or false or resorts to filmic artifice in Lost in Translation, and yet, conversely, it’s the very artificiality of American Splendor that grounds it in an everyday reality that’s so palpable and so sharply melancholy that it takes your breath away. Harvey Pekar — cult comic-book writer, professional malcontent, underground superhero — is such a singular personality that the writer/directors of this biopic, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, reverted to their documentarian roots in bringing his story to the screen: Framing their fictionalized adaptation of Pekar’s life are inserts of the actual Pekar and his real friends and family, shot on a soundstage with a white backdrop, while the cast portraying them wanders in the background.

It couldn’t be a clearer reminder that we’re watching a pretend approximation of reality, but it works to bring Pekar to life on film the way that he brought himself to life in his graphic novels, which, though written by Pekar, were illustrated by many different artists with widely varying styles. Here’s one Harvey, and here’s another Harvey, and here’s a third Harvey… and they’re all the same Harvey, cranky and perpetually downhearted and average and amazing. Mostly, Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti (Confidence, Planet of the Apes), with a stunning leading-man confidence and sincerity he’s never been allowed to display before, who turns a sad-sack depressive into the unlikeliest champion of the mundane. Giamatti’s Pekar shuffles his way through life — through his boring but much-needed job as a file jerk, through his hasty yet perfectly suited marriage to Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis: Hearts in Atlantis, Mumford, as gloomily, wonderfully morose as Giamatti), through the 15 minutes of minor fame extending to the very production of this film — glossing over the good and dwelling in the bad.

It’s like an intellectual tickle, the recursive nature of American Splendor, fake Pekars watching the real Pekar watching fake Pekars, and it’s akin to the way that Pekar — real or fake, take your pick — keeps a weather eye on the world, just slightly removed from it, enough to look askance at the things most of us never notice — snippets of overheard conversation, pointed observations about the usually unobserved dreariness of everything from grocery shopping to housekeeping — and to give voice to the prosaic discontent that many of us can never articulate. Pekar’s peculiar genius — turning the common into the uncommon merely by picking at it long enough — is mirrored by Berman and Pulcini, doggedly tracking a man who, for all his willing participation, really would rather be left alone. It’s Harvey’s world, and welcome to it… now get out. But not before you see a whole lot of unadulterated truth in it.

The Station Agent
There’s not a lot that’s luminous or enchanting about Harvey Pekar’s world, and Finbar McBride would probably say the same about the world in which he lives, too. Like American Splendor, The Station Agent is about a man who’d rather just be left alone in his misery; like Lost in Translation, it’s about a man desperate in his loneliness for a connection. Like both films, Thomas McCarthy’s debut feature puts ever so fine a point on the piquance of what it means to be alive and human and made of inconvenient flesh and blood. It’s a beautiful and unexpectedly funny film about the unlikely courage it takes not to be alone — McCarthy, who wrote and directed, spins a surprising and insightful and moving story from so seemingly simple and obvious as the need for human contact.

Fin, a loner and a railroad buff, moves to rural New Jersey, into an old train depot he’s inherited, supposing that here he’ll find the solitude he wants. He prefers his own company because he’s learned not to trust all the attention he receives, not for his handsome face and striking voice but for his short stature: he’s a dwarf, and attention typically means teasing and pointing and staring. He ignores it. But that makes it hard to make new friends, even when their genuine, unobnoxious attentions are so demanding, like those of Joe (Bobby Cannavale: The Guru, The Bone Collector), the hot-dog and snack vendor whose truck is parked daily outside the depot, or Olivia (Patricia Clarkson: Heartbreak Hospital, Far from Heaven), who after several inadvertent attempts to run Fin down with her SUV makes several awkward attempts at apology for almost killing him.

Dwarfism isn’t something an actor can fake or study and Method his way into — Peter Dinklage (Human Nature) is the real deal, obviously, and he uses his own raw anger to erect a wall around Fin that’s enough to break your heart. (McCarthy wrote the role specifically for Dinklage, an old friend, though Dinklage concedes he doesn’t share Fin’s bitter rage.) And at the same time, Fin, in his tentative new triangle of friendship with Joe and Olivia, stuns you into the realization that his dwarfism is merely his personal excuse for keeping to himself. It’s a doozy of an excuse, of course, and his anger at how most of the world treats him is entirely justified… but Joe and Olivia have their own excuses, too, for their loneliness and isolation. And so The Station Agent becomes all about the giant leap we sometimes need to remind ourselves to take, to trust and to be open and to be vulnerable and to let other people know who we are and to risk rejection.

And not even in a sexual way or a romantic way — though there is a little frisson of attraction between each of the guys and Olivia, it’s more the awkwardness of people meeting as adults and needing to get that possibility out of the way before they can move on with a friendship. No, these are three people in need of more basic contact, so that the little moments of victory are smaller and more profound, as when Joe, so loquacious and chatty, has to demand that Fin and Olivia come talk in the kitchen where he’s cooking so that he doesn’t miss any of the conversation — this is how far they’ve all progressed, the three loners now a little clique worried of missing out on one another’s company.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the film, though, is terse and penetrating and slips by if you’re not watching for it. Fin tells Olivia that he was very angry a younger man, and she asks what he was angry about. He has to tell her that he was angry at being a dwarf, but it’s the look on Fin’s face — his astonishment that he has to tell her — that will just about make you cry. It’s the first crack in his self-created armor, his first realization that some people, at least, can see him and not merely the body he’s trapped in, and it’s a tiny, breathtaking ray of hope for anyone who’s ever been lonely and afraid not to be.

[reader comments on this review]
[more comments]

Lost in Translation
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for some sexual content
official site | IMDB

American Splendor
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language
official site | IMDB

The Station Agent
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for language and some drug content
official site | IMDB

share and enjoy