Meet me in Toyko

Sofia Coppola’s new film is a subtle portrait of two hearts in crisis

PLAY IN THE STREET<br>Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson try to make some sense of Tokyo and each other.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson try to make some sense of Tokyo and each other.

Lost in Translation
Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson Directed by Sofia Coppola. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

Bill Murray is excellent in Lost in Translation, but that doesn’t mean that Sofia Coppola’s new film is a goof-off comedy. Indeed, while it does have a quiet, bittersweet humor to it, Coppola’s sophomore effort (after the excellent The Virgin Suicides) is a pungent two-character portrait with a richly nuanced sense of time and place.

The place is a Tokyo hotel, the time is the present, and the slender, intriguing story is about the fleeting but by no means inconsequential relationship that develops between two American travelers. Bob Harris (Murray) is a fading movie actor who has come to Tokyo to appear in some ads and commercials for a brand of whiskey. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is staying at the same hotel while her husband, a young photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), does some fashion shoots.

Both characters are at loose ends, in their personal lives as well as in the hyped-up, high-tech environment of post-modern Tokyo. In the low-key course of things (jet lag, cultural disorientation, insomnia, loneliness, etc.), each is drawn to the other, and what emerges is a surprisingly lively “brief encounter” whose steadily increasing intimacy and feeling never quite spills over into all-out romance.

Murray-style humor makes itself felt in scenes where Bob is coping with the image-makers and P.R. types of his advertising gig, but Murray does very fine work overall with the portrayal of a fellow whose age-blurred dignity is drifting into something like middle-aged discontent. Johansson, equally low-key and astute, is likewise excellent as a pertly intelligent 20-something, fresh out of college and only recently married, but already getting glimpses of the disillusionments which Bob perhaps knows too well already.

The precociously skillful Coppola uses the dislocations and absurdities of 21st-century Tokyo as both backdrop and medium for the central characterizations. Hers is a style in which quiet, careful attention to the characters’ surroundings generates a crucial and fascinating part of the story. She shows us, for example, that the electronic hum and robotic boredom of an elevator ride can become yet another occasion for sharp, incisive perceptions about Bob and Charlotte and the distinctively modern world in which they find themselves.