Picture Bill Murray singing a devastatingly moving karaoke version of Roxy Music’s "More Than This." It’s one of the many evocative scenes that make up Lost in Translation, a film of sweet, surprising moments by director, writer and co-producer Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides).
Again proving himself one of America’s most intelligent actors, the underrated Murray is terrific as Bob Harris, a middle-aged, not quite washed-up American movie star on a trip to Tokyo, where he’s making a whiskey ad for Japanese TV that will earn him $2 million for a few days’ work. Murray’s range is even more apparent here than it was in plum roles in Rushmore and Groundhog Day. No one does funny and sensitive better than Murray. Effortlessly, he makes Bob’s language problem with the commercial’s crass young director into a bit that’s as tickling as a slapstick battle he has with an exercise machine in the luxury hotel where he’s staying.
Yet he’s heartbreakingly poignant, too, when he realizes during mundane phone calls with his wife – who is hounding him about color samples and home decorating projects — that his distance from his family is more than physical. It’s a performance worthy of major awards.
At the hotel bar, Bob meets twentysomething Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who has accompanied her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) on a job shooting rock stars that keeps him too busy to pay any attention to her. Johansson’s subtle depth matches, if not surpasses, her portrayal of a disaffected teen in Ghost World. She embodies Charlotte’s thoughtfulness and her ambivalence about where she wants to go and what she wants to do in life.
Even though their circumstances are wildly different, Bob and Charlotte gradually strike up a friendship. Not only do they find a connection in feeling lost in a strange place, little by little they realize they both face self-doubt and uncertainties.
Coppola and cinematographer Lance Acord capture how weird Tokyo can be to an outsider. The cool, understated interior of the swanky hotel contrasts with the busy cacophony of a strip club, a video game arcade and a restaurant where Bob and Charlotte have fun trying to decipher the menu, with its puzzling pictures of lookalike dishes.
As she did in The Virgin Suicides, Coppola achieves a perfect tone, bringing the underlying rhythms of daily life to the screen. Even though Lost in Translation is only her second feature, she displays a maturity and originality not often seen in films today. Charlotte and Bob make no grand gestures and have no dramatic blowouts, yet Coppola expertly creates an undeniable tension between the two. It’s a rare exploration of a relationship that goes beyond the probability that the couple will end up in bed together.
But the details, which flow like a simple string of pearls, are what make the movie endearing from start to finish. Anna Faris of Scary Movie fame is great as a vapid young actress on a publicity tour, while Catherine Lambert nails her role as an opportunistic singer in the hotel’s cheesy lounge band, Sausalito. Even funnier – she croons "Midnight at the Oasis." The bit is reminiscent of the over-the-top lounge singer Murray created on Saturday Night Live more than two decades ago. Not only is Murray still making us laugh, he’s breaking our hearts with a quiet joy – the kind that that real life is made of.
– Leslie Katz