It's hard, at first, to fathom why this film is so successful - perhaps it's because people think they've seen a 'meaningful' film - it lacks violence, sex (apart from a brief, off-screen reference and another brief scene in a strip club), swearing, and a clearly delineated plot, unfolding in a leisurely, low-key, melancholy, soporific fashion. So sure, it's not M:I3, but that doesn't automatically make it high art, or even a particularly good film, either. Too often Coppola seems content to let the camera sweep smoothly over night-life shots of Tokyo, or linger over Johanssen and Murray's serious faces, with perhaps some music sweeping over to make one think one's watching something 'meaningful.' (In fact, surprisingly for a woman director, Coppola seems to exploit the (admittedly beautiful) Johanssen somewhat - a long amount of time is spent in which the camera gazes on her, often partially clothed (though not nude or bare-breasted), and I was particularly troubled by the opening shot of her behind, which seems to have very little to do with the rest of the film apart from offering titillation for the audience.) The dialogue, which could have saved the movie, often fails to live up to expectations - the central scene, mentioned by another reviewer, where Murray and Johanssen are lying next to each other on the bed, and he gives her his thoughts on life, is quite touching, but he doesn't end up saying anything of much significance, just some bland generalisations about life/experience, and we never really get too many character insights. It's too elusive, too much concerned with surface, despite the fact that so many of its fans praise it for going deeper than most blockbusters. At times I felt I was watching an extended commercial, of the kind that seem prevalent nowadays - seductive visual images with meditative music transposed over the top, calming in a new age meditation kind of a way, but ultimately not saying much.
Here's a brief summary of the movie: Johanssen is bored and lonely in Tokyo because her husband (a photographer) is away all the time and thinks she is a snob. She's not sure what to do with her life after completing her philosophy degree at Yale, and wanders around the city, aimlessly searching for meaning. Murray is a washed-up film star doing whiskey commercials in Japan for a week. His phone conversations with his wife reveal a seemingly warm relationship, though as the film continues it becomes clear that he's going through something of a mid-life crisis; she's wrapped up in the kids and the trappings of domesticity (seen in the faxes she sends through about shelves and carpets), he's almost not needed, and life has lost some of its spark. Fairly predictably, he tries to rekindle with Johanssen, though - thank God - platonically. (In fact, this was one of the best aspects of the film - it resisted the temptation to become a romantic drama and instead enabled a slightly more perceptive look at human relationships in general. Probably the falsest part of the film was when Murray slept with another woman - it felt contrived and added little to plot or atmosphere.) In the end, though, he has to return to his family, Johanssen has to continue her search for meaning alone, and Murray's biggest act of rebellion is telling his wife he wants to start eating Japanese food. The problem is, they feel so aimless anyway that it's hard to feel too much sympathy for them - they're rich, with access to facilities which millions across the world could only dream of, and both have loving (if perhaps distanced) spouses - it could be argued that Coppola's analysing the emptiness at the heart of modern society, despite its wealth and power, but because the film is so elusive, it never really manages to summon itself up to SAY something - though it gives the impression that the viewer has been through something meaningful. Another problem is the treatment of the Japanese, which, as several other reviewers have noted, rarely rises beyond fairly cheap comical stereotyping - a far more potent analysis of the lack of understanding between cultures and the barriers constructed by language and custom could have been undertaken which would have added a whole layer of meaning to the film that, as it is, is only hinted at (as much by the title as anything).
There were many ideas, themes and threads only hinted at in the film, which, if developed further, could have ensured the experience that so many seem to think this already is. As with much contemporary artistic product, I feel that people are quick to praise LIT as wonderful because it so much as touches on deeper themes, whether or not it fully realises them or develops them in a convincing way. What should really be the benchmark should be art that actually succeeds in not just suggesting ideas beyond the vapidity of the mainstream, but carries them through and causes us, for example, to take a fresh look at the familiar (as opposed to us just leaving the cinema and saying 'how beautiful, how thought-provoking, how ARTISTIC, it must be a masterpiece').
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