BY LYNN LEE
The most poignant irony of Sofia Coppola’s beautifully nuanced “Lost in Translation” is that the film is as much about successful communication as its breakdown. Or maybe there’s no irony at all, since it’s the kind of communication best embodied in the momentary glance, the touch of a hand, the passing of a cigarette, which doesn’t need to be translated into speech. The two central characters wander aimlessly through a foreign land, comprehending none of it, yet in the end neither they nor we much care about anything except this wordless understanding they share with each other.
There isn’t much of a plot. Bill Murray plays an aging American movie star, Bob Harris, who arrives in Tokyo to shoot a series of Japanese whiskey ads for a cool $2 million. He knows nothing of the Japanese language or culture, and initially contents himself with shuttling glumly back and forth between the studio and his hotel, spending a lot of time in the bar in between. There he meets Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), a fellow American and hotel guest accompanying her photographer-husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). After running into each other repeatedly during the small hours (both are insomniacs), Charlotte and Bob strike up a casual friendship that quickly deepens into something more.
Anyone even mildly queasy at the thought of a romance between Bill Murray and a girl at least three decades his junior can relax: Coppola handles their developing relationship with the utmost delicacy. Bob’s interest in Charlotte isn’t prurient, and she’s no Lolita. What draws them together is their shared sense of alienation. Charlotte tries more earnestly than Bob to absorb something of her new surroundings, flitting around the city and making trips to monasteries and ancient gardens, but she spends most of her time, like Bob, brooding on her awful detachment from all of it – including her frequently absent husband, who’s too consumed with his own life to notice anything lacking in his wife’s. Bob’s married, too – has been for twenty-five years, and is still trying listlessly to hold it together, but as his long-distance phone conversations with his wife reveal, he is about as effective at communicating with her as he is with his Japanese entourage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tokyo forms a mesmerizing yet impenetrably strange and remote backdrop to the growing intimacy of the protagonists. Coppola presents the neon-bright city as a series of alternately beautiful and bizarre surfaces, and scores a few easy laughs at the expense of Japanese shortness, their sexual subculture, and their inability to differentiate “l”s and “r”s. Yet she mostly manages to avoid exoticizing a country she herself often visited as a child, and some of the loveliest moments in the film are those that contrast the outsiders’ displacement with the residents’ un-self-conscious connection to their own world: adolescents caught up in the fantasies of a video arcade, women arranging flowers, a young couple in traditional dress quietly clasping hands in the course of a bridal ceremony – a gesture beautifully echoed by Bob and Charlotte on their last night together.
“Lost in Translation” appears to have wiped out the last taint of Sofia Coppola’s notoriously panned non-performance in daddy Coppola’s “Godfather Part III.” And deservedly so, though it isn’t quite the great leap forward from her directorial debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” that many critics are proclaiming it to be. Like the earlier film, it has the dreamlike, evanescent feel of a mood piece, with its highly evocative use of music and silences, which linger in the memory far longer than the dialogue.
Yet while “Suicides” floats upon the fundamental elusiveness of its focal characters, “Translation” is anchored by the ability of its leads to convey their connection with each other. Murray delivers his most understated performance yet as Bob; even his rare moments of humor are unexpectedly muted. Only his eyes, often by the merest flicker, betray the evolution of his feelings towards Charlotte. Johansson, for her part, has the kind of luminously pensive face you can watch forever; indeed, there’s so much inner light shining through her that it’s hard to believe her Charlotte won’t turn out all right in the end. That hope seems dimmer in the case of the much world-wearier Bob, yet the last shot of him leaving Tokyo, the merest suggestion of a smile on his face, hints that the fleeting spark struck with a stranger may stay with him – and with the viewer – indefinitely.