For her second feature film, the wistful Lost in Translation, director Sofia Coppola takes actors and character types from two of the best American films of the past few years -- Bill Murray's successful sad clown from Rushmore and Scarlett Johansson's sensible left-of-center young woman from Ghost World -- and plops them together in Tokyo for a few days.
Both are jet-lagged and sleep-deprived. Murray's Bob Harris is a Hollywood action star (think Bruce Willis) in Japan to pick up a few million for endorsing a brand of whiskey, and Johansson's Charlotte is a recent Ivy League grad tagging along with her on-assignment celebrity photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). They strike up a hotel friendship based on a few crucial commonalities. For starters, they're each dissatisfied with their professional and domestic lives. Bob wonders why he's in Tokyo filming commercials when he could be doing a play somewhere, and he communicates via cell phone and fax with his all-business wife, who is at home taking care of the kids and redecorating Bob's study. Charlotte isn't sure what her future holds. She's a philosophy major and writer, though she doesn't like what she writes and she seems increasingly estranged from her husband.
Bob and Charlotte are also both observational types who click over their shared bemusement at the oddness of their surroundings: They first connect when their eyes meet (and roll) across the hotel bar as an American singer warbles her way through "Scarborough Fair." Their friendship and mutual dissatisfaction established, Bob suggests they organize a "prison break," and the two end up entertaining each other for the next few days.
Lost in Translation is a film short on plot but rich with incident; nothing much happens, yet every frame is crammed with life and nuance and emotion. There are sight gags galore (Murray in the hotel elevator, towering over his Japanese companions; his visual otherness from Japanese culture a constant sight gag as alienation effect), bits of slapstick (Murray on the hotel stair-climber), and constant appreciative amusement at the cultural misunderstandings that these two fish-out-of-water encounter. ("Why do they switch their "r"s and "l"s here?" Charlotte asks. "For yuks," Bob responds, dryly.)
As natural and affecting as Johansson is, this is Murray's movie, his strongest lead role since Groundhog Day. And, though Coppola is credited with writing the film, one imagines Murray must have crafted a lot of his own material, especially in relation to Bob's stoic bemusement at his place in the Japanese pop-culture machine: appearing on a chaotic talk show with "the Japanese Johnny Carson" or bantering with a photographer who keeps demanding more American cool from him -- more "007" (Roger Moore, not Sean Connery) and "Lat Pack." ("You want, like, Joey Bishop?" Bob asks, amusing himself even if the reference sails past the photographer.)
But at the heart of the film are Bob and Charlotte's nighttime romps through Tokyo, scenes which earn Lost in Translation a place in a small but fertile movie subgenre critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once dubbed "City as Plaything," a romantic genre that, from L'Atalante to Before Sunrise to The Lovers on the Bridge, has had romantic meet-cutes play amid great, sprawling urban backdrops. And Lost in Translation finds considerable poetry in Tokyo's peculiar clash of the solemnly ancient and breathlessly modern -- old customs mingling with animÇ-inspired video games, the towering Mt. Fuji juxtaposed with the equally breathtaking neon mountains of downtown Tokyo.
The film's centerpiece is one long night of clubbing that finds Bob and Charlotte exploring streets, bars, restaurants, arcades, and, most memorably, a karaoke club, where their Japanese host tackles "God Save the Queen" and Murray takes a spirited stab at "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding."
But where all other "City as Plaything" movies are straight-up romances, Lost in Translation is something a little different. Bob and Charlotte's May-December relationship is a more precarious and more complicated thing than that, sexual tension subsumed by late nights of sake and television and conversation, their negotiations sometimes resembling courtship and sometimes plainly avuncular. What Coppola seems to be going for here is an ode to human connection that is bigger than (or perhaps just apart from) sex and romance (notice the nearly imperceptible moment in Charlotte's hotel room when Bob reaches down to chastely squeeze her foot).
Lost in Translation is, befitting its title, a film that tracks the ineffable, exploring the contours of unexpressed feelings. The viewer may never be sure how much these two people, at two very different stages in life, actually care for each other and how much they merely serve as stand-ins for each other's sense of lost possibilities, but that mystery feels appropriate and it's underscored by the film's magnificent ending, where the audience is not allowed to hear these characters' parting words.
All of this complication and magic and longing is embodied in the film's seemingly tossed-off, spontaneous-feeling karaoke centerpiece. Charlotte, wearing a hot-pink wig, does a seductive take on the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket," her self-conscious mimicry of the song's come-on perhaps a mask for the real thing. Bob tops her, and steals the movie, with a movingly tone-deaf rendition of Roxy Music's "More Than This": "It was fun for a while/There was no way of knowing/Like a dream in the night/Who can say where we're going?"
With this film, following a strong debut with The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola establishes herself as one of America's most talented young filmmakers. She does her dad, Francis, proud, but she's nothing like him. Her age, her relative distance from the old studio style, and, most of all, her gender result in a style less plot-driven, less action-oriented, more spontaneous, and, as Lost in Translation testifies, tender as the night.
-- Chris Herrington