Strangers in a strange land

Lost in Translation

Bill Murray, giving his trademark Bill O’Reilly hangdog look while seated next to ingénue-du-jour Scarlett Johansson in the new Sofia Coppola film <i>Lost in Translation</i>.

Bill Murray, giving his trademark Bill O’Reilly hangdog look while seated next to ingénue-du-jour Scarlett Johansson in the new Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation.

Rated 4.0

Two Americans suffer from jet lag and feelings of a derailed existence in writer and director Sofia Coppola’s bittersweet Lost in Translation. They have arrived at the posh Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel, with their belongings and cumbersome emotional baggage in tow, and soon make an unexpected connection that alters their lives. There is no typical plot of which to speak. Coppola’s comic, tender melodrama focuses instead on a slice of time that long will resonate for two strangers from opposite ends of the marital spectrum who venture into that volatile, exhilarating minefield that exists between friendship and romance.

Lost in Translation is the story of midlife crisis and growing pains for a middle-aged man and a young woman. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) has spent 25 years in a marriage that is now on the verge of complacency. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) has been married for two years and is suddenly not so sure she’s with the right man. They are linked by a common personal, cultural and geographic displacement, and they discover a smoldering hunger for life in each other that reignites their own inner fires.

Harris is an American movie star in town to shoot a whiskey commercial. His career peaked with action films in the 1970s, but he is making a small fortune by hawking alcohol in a tuxedo. He has trouble sleeping, shoots golf alone, hangs out at the hotel bar each evening and generally prowls the hotel by night. He does not speak or understand Japanese, and he reacts to his surroundings and its denizens with deadpan amazement.

Charlotte is a philosophy graduate in her 20s who does not quite know what to do with her life. She has accompanied her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Tokyo while he is on an assignment. He pursues the trappings of contact fame (which is more addictive than any contact high) in rock and young-Hollywood circles. She is left feeling stranded and in dire need of a relevant relationship to offset her growing sense of neglect.

Coppola delicately alternates between the separate daily routines of the world-wearied pilgrims and then weaves their lives together through a series of chance encounters and subsequent dates. She proved her competency at conjuring up full-blooded characters with her 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides. That film floated past like a sweet, sad dream burnished with a complementary soundtrack. She continues her remarkable character and aural sketching here—even though a couple scenes do not quite work for me—in a valentine to the neon-saturated nightlife of Tokyo and the transient inhabitants of those global pockets of sanctuary that we call luxury hotels.

She also has surrounded herself with fine crew talent. Cinematographer Lance Acord, who leapt from music videos (including Fatboy Slim’s video for “Weapon of Choice") to features (Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), imbues the film with delicious color. And the editing by Sarah Flack, who cut Steven Soderbergh’s excellent, edgy The Limey, allows Coppola’s pensive script plenty of opportunities to unhurriedly stretch its limbs. And Coppola gleaned most of the mercurial soundtrack from “Tokyo dream-pop” tapes given to her by Air drummer Brian Reitzell.

Murray is outstanding as the bearer of flawed maturity and gnawing melancholy whose boozy karaoke performances include a version of “(What’s so Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” He seems resigned to marital fatigue, yet he seeps humor into the film with the gentle force of a regenerative spring. Johansson played the traumatized teen in The Horse Whisperer and co-starred in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Here she emanates potent sensuality and credible disillusionment as she seeks a new foothold on the canyon wall of life. Ribisi, who narrated The Virgin Suicides, is so overly annoying in the role of self-absorbed husband that I wondered why Charlotte would ever hook up with him, and I welcomed his every exit.

Charlotte asks Bob at one point if life gets any easier as it goes on. "The more you know who you are and what you want," he replies, "the less you let things upset you." It is a lucid comment that makes his final whisper into Charlotte’s ear, which we very appropriately cannot hear, all the more beguiling.