Lost in Translation

Don't stall about seeing Sofia Coppola's altogether remarkable Lost in Translation. It's a class-act liftoff for the fall movie season. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson give performances that will be talked about for years. And Coppola, in her second feature (The Virgin Suicides came first, in 2000), shows the ardent assurance of a born filmmaker. One problem: The fragile plot defies blunt description. How to pin down a moonbeam that tickles you with laughs, teases you with romantic possibility and then melts into heartbreak? Just go with the flow. The Tokyo dream-pop score, produced by Brian Reitzell, helps.

Bob Harris, played for something way deeper than ha-ha by Murray, floats in a limo bubble through the neon glitter of nighttime Tokyo. Bob's a Hollywood movie star with maybe one too many brainless blockbusters under his belt. He's in Japan to shoot a whiskey commercial for an easy $2 million and to nurse a midlife crisis stemming from an aimless career and marriage.

Charlotte (Johansson) is three decades younger than Bob, but she shares his sense of drift. A Yale philosophy grad, she's in Tokyo with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a slick careerist who leaves her alone to find herself while he's off shooting rock stars.

Charlotte and Bob don't know each other. But for a moment they're in different suites in the same impossibly posh Tokyo hotel. Coppola has no fear of being undramatic in showing these two characters alone: Bob in his kimono, Charlotte in her underwear, each gazing through huge windows at the city below. Coppola catches the disconnect that comes from being a stranger in a strange land. And gifted cinematographer Lance Acord (Being John Malkovich, Buffalo 66) — shooting on high-speed film instead of the digital video fast becoming an indie cliche — gives that disconnect the seductive sheen of something exotic just out of reach.

Murray is flat-out hilarious as Bob shoots the commercial, dependent on a translator who maddeningly condenses tirades from the Japanese director into such banalities as "Look at the camera like a friend." But it's his skill at uncovering the emotional bruises in Bob that makes this a career triumph for Murray, one that should earn him a salute from Oscar, who idiotically ignored his understated brilliance in Wes Anderson's Rushmore.

Johansson, 18, and striking in films as diverse as The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn't There, has matured into an actress of smashing loveliness and subtle grace. It's clear that Coppola, a visitor to Japan since childhood, understands Charlotte from the inside. The movie isn't girly in the way The Virgin Suicides sometimes was. Coppola has found her voice with this artfully evanescent original screenplay. When she brings Bob and Charlotte together, the tone seems exactly right.

They meet in the hotel lounge. Later, they share confidences, go to a strip club, a video arcade and a karaoke bar (Murray's version of Roxy Music's "More Than This" is one for the time capsule). OK, maybe a few of the culture-clash jokes are facile. But suddenly Tokyo comes alive, and so do Bob and Charlotte. She is stung when Bob sleeps with a jazz singer, played by Catherine Lambert ("I guess you had a lot to talk about, like growing up in the Fifties"). But sexual jealousy is not the issue here. Bob and Charlotte's brief encounter is built to last, if only in their memories. Before saying goodbye, they whisper something to each other that the audience can't hear. Coppola keeps her film as hushed and intimate as that whisper. Lost in Translation is found gold. Funny how a wisp of a movie from a wisp of a girl can wipe you out.

From The Archives Issue 298: August 23, 1979