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Thursday, February 3, 2022

February 3, 2022: Bill MurrayStudying: Lost in Translation

[To celebrate one of our strangest holidays, Groundhog Day, I’ll be AmericanStudying that film as well as four others in the long and unique career of Bill Murray. Leading up to a crowd-sourced post featuring your takes on these and other Murray classics!]

On a beloved character who both embodies and challenges the “ugly American abroad” stereotype.

When an actor has worked for as long and as well as Bill Murray, the list of most famous and beloved scenes is of course quite competitive, and I’m sure every fan would have their own choices. But I’d say high on that list for most viewers would have to be the sequence in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) where Murray’s fading movie star Bob Harris is doing his best to record a TV commercial for Japanese whisky Suntory (a real product, which I wouldn’t have expected until researching this post) with sincerity. Well, maybe not his best, but perhaps the best he can do at that moment—which is what makes the scene and performance so iconic, as Murray truly captures the falling star’s bitterness and self-loathing (and barely contained sarcasm) through the smallest of choices as he struggles to record the ad and its famous catchphrase.

Much of that might be the same if the scene were set in Harris’s native United States—the timing of this stage of his career would be the same anywhere, after all—but I’d say it’s all amplified by the fact that he’s recording the commercial in a foreign country, for a product with which he assume he’s much less familiar, working with a director and crew who speak a different language than he, and so on. Some of that is specific to the acting profession, and specifically the longstanding image of actors who need money (or just work) performing in ads in other countries (or, in one recent famous headline, turning down a stunningly large such paycheck for ethical reasons). But it also plays into another longstanding image and narrative: the “ugly American abroad,” the way in which American travelers or tourists can treat everything about the countries they’re visiting—including their whiskeys, presumably—as at best a step down from what they’re used to in their “exceptional” home country, and at worst deserving of thinly disguised scorn.

As I mentioned above, however, the true object of Bob Harris’s scorn is clearly himself, a fact which differentiates him from the unwavering and undeserved self-confidence that’s typically part of the ugly American’s attitude. And while there are various ways to interpret the movie’s central, deeply ambiguous relationship and arc between Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s young newlywed Charlotte, I would say that one layer to their dynamic is the way in which both Charlotte and Japan offer Harris a chance to reflect on where he’s come in his career and life and, potentially, chart a new course from this moment forward. It’s quite telling, after all, that the movie’s other, far more serious and moving most famous scene takes place at that most Japanese of institutions, a karaoke bar. Harris’s performance there of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” (to my mind one of Murray’s single best moments as an actor) starts as another moment of silliness and self-parody but turns into something quite different and far more sincere, which could describe his entire experience of Japan (thanks in no small measure to Charlotte, of course).

Last MurrayStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on other Murray films? 

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