Study Guide

Lost in Translation Bob Harris (Bill Murray)

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Bob Harris (Bill Murray)

Bob Harris is a superstar—or at least he used to be. His star is on the wane, and so he finds himself in Tokyo peddling Suntory whisky for a cool $2 million. Nice work, if you can get it.

The thing is, Bob isn't sure he wants it. In fact, when we meet him, Bob isn't sure what he wants, period. His marriage is stagnant but he's sticking with it because he loves his kids, even as his wife tells him that they're getting used to him not being around.

I Get So Lonesome I Could Shoot Japanese Commercials

Bob's disconnected from his work as an actor, so it only makes sense that he racks up some bank shooting cheesy foreign booze commercials while he can—even if, as he tells Charlotte in the bar, he really thinks he should be pounding the boards somewhere, being a serious actor:

CHARLOTTE: So what are you doing here?

BOB: Couple of things. Taking a break from my wife; forgetting my son's birthday; and getting paid $2 million to endorse a whisky when I could be doing a play somewhere.


BOB: But the good news is, the whisky works.

Bob may be a celebrity with a bottomless checking account, but he's also human and flawed. He's afraid to shake things up. If he wants to do a play, for example, why doesn't he do a play? He can audition if he has to. Then again, every time his wife calls, 95% of what she wants to talk about are renovations to their house, so maybe that's our answer right there.

No matter what, Bob the actor has checked out.

He doesn't recognize himself anymore. Very early in the movie, Bob's spotted in the hotel bar by two American men. When one asks the other if he knows who Bob is, his friend replies, "That's not him. It looks like him, but it's not him." We're willing to bet Bob thinks the same thing when he's shaving in the morning. It sure looks like the talented, ambitious actor he once knew, but…

Bob is lonely, and not just because he's hundreds of miles away from his family. He's lonely back in the states, too. The clash of culture between Tokyo and Los Angeles just heightens his sense of alienation. He's a foot taller than everyone. He doesn't speak the language. He's dealing with directors and translators who, all things considered, sure seem like they're messing with him.

Check out what happens at his Suntory commercial shoot after the director rattles off a hefty chunk of instructions in Japanese, none of which Bob can understand:

TRANSLATOR: He want you to turn, look in camera. Okay?

BOB: That's all he said?

Bob feels like he's out of the loop, and it's not difficult to see why. You know that feeling when you walk in a room and everybody's laughing, and you ask what's so funny, and nobody wants to bother to tell you because you just wouldn't get it? That's what Bob feels like 24/7. All the world is an inside joke that he wasn't there for.

Bob struggles to communicate with his Japanese business contacts because of the language barrier. He doesn’t speak Japanese, and they don't speak English. The thing is, he can't really connect with anybody in English, either. His wife's all domestic business when she calls, and it's hard to blame her, given that she's at home raising the kids by herself while Bob jets off to Japan. He can't communicate his troubles, fears, or insecurities to anybody.

Until he meets Charlotte.

Ice in His Suntory, Karaoke in His Veins

Emotionally, Bob speaks a different language than those closest to him. Trying to communicate his anxieties would be agony. Just ask anybody who's ever tried to find fro-yo shop in a country where they don't speak the language.

Fortunately for Bob, Charlotte speaks that language, too, and she can help him translate the thoroughly foreign world around him—and we don't just mean "foreign" because they're in Japan. In the simplest terms, Charlotte makes him feel young again, or perhaps more accurately, she doesn't make him feel old. Plus, she’s facing the same identity crisis he is, but the twenty-something version.

Being reminded by his wife that their daughter's dance recital is coming up makes him feel old. So do FedEx boxes full of burgundy carpet samples that all look the same. So does his receding hairline and his wrinkled mug that Naka's makeup staff layers with make-up before their photo shoot.

When Bob hangs out with Charlotte, he doesn't feel old or washed-up. He may not even feel young for all we know. What's important is that he feels alive. He feels like an active participant in his own life, instead of just a big blob of skin and whisky that's acted upon by outside forces. You don't have to be or feel young to feel alive. Look at Betty White.

What's sad is that feeling full of electricity is new for Bob. Check out this conversation Bob has with his wife, Lydia, after his big night out with Charlotte and Charlie Brown, running from bartenders and crooning karaoke tunes:

LYDIA: Look, I'm glad you're having fun.

BOB: It's not fun. It's just very, very different.

LYDIA: Maybe that's good. I have to get the kids off for school, okay? So can I call you in a while?

BOB: I might not be up. It's like 4:00.

LYDIA: You better some sleep; you have work in the morning.

BOB: No, actually, they gave me tomorrow off.

LYDIA: That must be nice.

Lydia represents all of the mundanity back at home that's robbed most of the fun from their marriage. She has kids to take to school. She wants to make sure he's in good shape for work. She'd probably kill for a day off of school runs and sifting through paint chips.

No offense, kids. Or walls.

Based on what Bob tells Charlotte, his marriage wasn't always so dry and lifeless:

CHARLOTTE: What about marriage? Does that get easier?

BOB: That's hard. We used to have a lot of fun. Lydia would come with me when I made the movies, and we would laugh about it all. Now she doesn't want to leave the kids, and she doesn't need me to be there. The kids miss me, but they're fine.

Bob doesn't feel needed in his own family anymore. If you're keeping score at home, that's the second place where he feels useless. The acting profession doesn't seem to have much use for him, either. Lost and lost.

Bob's Baggage

When Bob meets Charlotte, he meets the right woman at the triple-wrong time. Their relationship has three strikes against it from the get-go:

  • They're both married to other people.
  • He's a lot older than her. Like, a lot a lot.
  • They're both just passing through Tokyo.

Bob's moving into the final act of his life. He's on his way out of middle age; she's just out of school. They're both anxious about moving into a new phase of their lives, and about how their existing beliefs, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and skills will translate to that next phase. And that's why they click. Bob and Charlotte have an easy rapport:

CHARLOTTE: You having a nice time

BOB: Can you keep a secret? I'm trying to organize a prison break. I'm looking for, like, an accomplice. We'd have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in, or are you out?


They also desperately want to break out of the respective funks that they're in. Bob, like Charlotte, is stuck. He wants to move, but he doesn't know where to or how. His intense, intimate, brief friendship with Charlotte nudges him in the right direction. She pays attention to him, has zero interest in his film career, and, verbally, is a match.

The keyword there is "nudges," though. Bob still has his walls up, even as he connects with Charlotte. Bob's an expert at using humor to deflect from genuine feeling. When he meets Charlotte to go out with her and her (presumably youthful) friends, Bob shows up wearing a hideous yellow camouflage shirt. It's his attempt to look young, and boy-howdy, it's hideous.

Here's what happens when Charlotte opens the door to greet him:

CHARLOTTE: You really are having a mid-life crisis, huh?

BOB: Really?


BOB: I was afraid of that. I kept telling myself that, you know, I just wanted to be ready in case we go to war tonight.

Bob's embarrassed, so he makes a joke. When Bob's ashamed that he's shooting commercials, he makes jokes. When Bob's flummoxed by Japanese culture, he makes jokes. Bob's a frequently smug guy with a quick wit who lays down jokes like suppressive fire. That way real emotions and decision-making never get too close.

More Than This

By the end of the film, however, Bob stops resorting to easy laughs and starts standing up for what he wants—because he finally has an idea of what he wants. When Lydia calls for the 984th time about carpet samples, he opens up:

LYDIA: Look, your burgundy carpet isn’t in stock. It's gonna take 12 weeks. Did you like any of the other colors?

BOB: Whatever you like. I'm completely lost.

LYDIA: It's just carpet.

BOB: That's not what I'm talking about.

LYDIA: What are you talking about?

BOB: I don’t know. I just want to get healthy. I want to take better care of myself. I would like to start eating healthier. I don't want all that pasta. I would like to start eating like Japanese food.

LYDIA: Well, why don’t you just stay there, and you can have it every day.

Okay, so his timing wasn't that great, but Bob at the beginning of the film never would've told Lydia that he feels lost and that he wants to take better care of himself and be happier. Maybe it's because he knew how Lydia would react, but new and improved Bob? New and Improved Bob doesn’t care. Charlotte accepts him and likes him as he is, and that helps him get real and be honest.

Here's a comparison to illustrate the difference between old, closed-off Bob and emotionally brave Bob 2.0. On their last night in the Park Hyatt bar, Bob gives it to Charlotte straight:

BOB: I don't want to leave.

CHARLOTTE: So don't. Stay here with me. We'll start a jazz band.

The next morning, as Bob gets ready to leave, Charlotte's nowhere in sight. We don't know if they had plans to meet or not, but it's obvious that he's hoping she'll show up. As he wraps things up with Kawasaki and the rest of the Suntory team, his eyes search the lobby for Charlotte. Here's what he says when he's all but given up and calls her room:

BOB: (into the phone) Charlotte, I'm down in the lobby, and I'm leaving now. Uh, I was calling to see if you still had my jacket, if you could bring it down, but you're not there, so this is goodbye. And uh, so, I guess goodbye, and enjoy my jacket, which you stole from me.

When Bob feels like he's been shoved out in the cold again, those walls come right back up. He doesn't give a rip about that jacket. He just made $2 million to shoot a whisky commercial; he probably owns a jacket orchard somewhere in northern California. Bob wants to tell Charlotte way more than he actually does, but he feels isolated again, so he resorts to humor ("enjoy my jacket—which you stole from me") and bottling up his feelings.

He's detached because being detached is easy; there are no stakes.

You're the Man Now, Dog Bob

Fortunately, Bottled-Up Bob is short-lived.

When he spots Charlotte walking down the street on his way to the airport, Bob 2.0 springs back into action. That's the Bob who's bold enough to ask the driver to pull over so he can get a do-over on their lackluster hotel lobby goodbye.

It's an event that has stakes for Bob, and we definitely get the sense that nothing's been at stake in Bob's life for a while. When he chases after Charlotte so he can kiss her and tell her whatever mysterious message it is that he tells her, he's righting a wrong. He's acknowledging that their relationship matters, and that how they leave things matters. In other words, Bob finally cares about something enough (aside from his kids) to take care of it.

He doesn't know what he's flying back to in the States. He doesn't know what's going to happen with Lydia, his kids, or his career. He's probably pretty sure he'll never see Charlotte again.

None of that really matters, though. What matters is that Bob's no longer afraid of the unknown. If his smile in the car on the way to the airport's any indication, he's stoked about it, and here's why: Bob's finally taking control of his life. He's back in the driver's seat.

Earlier in the film, as Bob and Charlotte have a heart-to-heart about their marriages and their anxieties about the future, Bob tells Charlotte, "You're not hopeless." It's as close as he gets to an "I love you,” at least that we hear. He's right: she's not hopeless, and, by the end of the film, neither is Bob.

His yellow camouflage shirt still is, though. Woof.

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