Lost in Translation opens with a wistful consideration of Scarlett Johansson’s derriere, but this odalisque notwithstanding, it’s Bill Murray’s movie. That may even be a generic description—I can’t imagine another actor bringing the same wry wounded dignity to his role. In her impressive second feature, Sofia Coppola—who wrote as well as directed—gives Murray room to stretch and is rewarded with some remarkably melancholy clowning.
Murray plays American movie star Bob Harris, a version of himself. As movie stars do, he’s in Tokyo picking up a quick few million by shooting a Suntory whiskey commercial. Alone and adrift in a sterile Hyatt, he strikes up a friendship with another guest, Johansson’s Charlotte. She’s in Tokyo with her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer on assignment; left to her own devices, she’s even lonelier than Bob. (His wife, present through phone calls and faxes, is an acerbic reality principle.)
Lost in Translation is a comedy of dislocation set in a metropolis that is itself spectacularly decentered. Bob more than once confronts his own disembodied image in the semiotic jungle of Japanese pop culture. He’s a stranger in a strange land—bemused by the ceremonial business meetings, the hotel room’s automatic curtains, the unfathomable craziness of the local TV, the pure sensory overload of Shibuya, the capacity for endless misunderstanding. Coppola gets as much mileage from Japanese otherness as any cine gaijin since Chris Marker made Sans Soleil.
Towering over an elevator full of salary men, Bob is a one-man alienation effect. There are a few too many yahoo jokes based on Japanese English, but the scenes in which Bob makes his commercial or promotes it with an appearance on a lunatic talk show are near hilarious—thanks largely to the star’s stoical resignation. Murray must have written his own material. Bob is always wearily cracking wise—if only for his amusement. Meanwhile, like a surrealist heroine, Charlotte wanders the city. Coppola cuts between Bob’s adventures and hers—the droll parallel action suggesting a sort of soft Jarmusch comedy. Their paths cross at the hotel bar where their eyes meet (and roll) over the ridiculous chanteuse.
Despite a plethora of sight gags, Lost in Translation never turns cute. Bob and Charlotte are both jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and Tokyo is their dream. They are both essentially observational, and once they connect, their riffs have the excitement of a shared language. The movie is lyrical, touching, and gently discombobulated. Coppola has a good eye, a confident knowledge of celebrity folkways, and a definite feel for nightlife. In the movie’s major set piece, Bob joins Charlotte and her few Japanese acquaintances for a round of clubbing. In his karaoke moment, Bob sings “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” and then—to somewhat different effect and around the time that Charlotte has adopted a fetching pink wig-hat—the Roxy Music heart-clutcher “More Than This.”
Bob and Charlotte embark upon a friendship in which they are both themselves and, to Coppola’s credit, the unacknowledged personification of foreclosed opportunities. (The delicacy of the movie’s unexpressed feelings might be a tribute to the most subtle of Japanese directors, Mikio Naruse.) The affectingly natural Johansson is playing a few years older than her age; the sultry innocence of her character’s raw, unfinished features is reflected in the yearning one gleans behind Bob’s practiced mask of privacy. Sexual tension builds: Bob is available and Charlotte is curious and, as Coppola makes sure, in a frequent state of dishabille. But sex is displaced onto something else. The pair wander the hotel, they watch TV and drink sake, they talk and suffer their own misunderstanding, then wonder how they’ll say goodbye.
Lost in Translation is as bittersweet a brief encounter as any in American movies since Richard Linklater’s equally romantic Before Sunrise. But Lost in Translation is the more poignant reverie. Coppola evokes the emotional intensity of a one-night stand far from home—but what she really gets is the magic of movies. The stars do shine at night. By the cold light of day it’s difficult to believe that, as individuated as the performances are, this sad middle-aged man and that restless young wife could ever feel so deeply for each other but it’s shivery to think so.