In Sofia Coppola's captivating second film, two lonely hearts in limbo connect and Bill Murray really hits his stride, LIAM LACEY writes


Lost in Translation

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson
Classification: PG
Rating: ***

The long-time suspicion that Bill Murray, with his sad blue eyes and self-mocking dignity, brings something very special to the screen is proved convincingly true in Lost in Translation, the new film from Sofia Coppola.

In glimpses in the past, and usually in little-seen movies (The Razor's Edge, Where the Buffalo Roam, Mad Dog and Glory), Murray has shown this promise. Recently in Wes Anderson's Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, he has found a note of pathos along with his trademark deadpan irony. In Lost in Translation, he emerges as a complete character -- honourable and venal, fallible and funny, adding vulnerability to the panache. It's easy to understand why a young woman in her 20s might fall for him, or why a young woman director would want to explore that appeal.

This is the second film from Francis Ford's daughter, following her cool (and cruel) novel adaptation, The Virgin Suicides. She wrote this one herself, with Murray in mind as a fading American movie star, Bob Harris, stranded in Tokyo where he has arrived to shoot a Suntory whisky commercial. The first time we see him on-screen, riding in the back of a cab, eyes half-lidded and looking like Robert Mitchum, he suddenly startles to see his own image on a billboard. Murray, trimmed down and toned, actually does look like a movie star here, a far cry from the slob he played in Osmosis Jones. Jet-lagged and disoriented in the high-tech terrarium of a deluxe hotel, he befriends Charlotte, the young wife of a celebrity photographer on assignment. A shared sense of unhappiness and dislocation, and the affection of kindred spirits, draw them close with the force of inevitability.

Arguably, Lost in Translation is the American answer to Wong Kar-wai's masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, though less about history, more about infatuation. Lost in Translation is already earning swoony critical responses. Once again, we have the teasing possibilities between a man and a woman, both attached to other people yet intensely drawn to each other. Both are unwilling to do wrong and, in the end, each movie gains mystique from a secret that is whispered, to which the audience is not privy.

In each case, the charismatic lead performances are set in an idiosyncratic, claustrophobic world. I'd go so far as to suggest that Coppola's opening shot -- of Scarlett Johansson's perfectly round, pink panty-clad bum -- finds its equivalent in Wong's festishization of Maggie Cheung's backside in In the Mood. Both films have the feeling of unconsummated erotic dreams.

Coppola's film is very skillful, in creating both an intriguing setting -- a strange, dislocated hotel life in Tokyo -- and a dreamy narrative where the two not-quite lovers keep running into each other, by accident and on purpose. Johansson, with her pillowy lips and husky voice, is attractive enough, but mostly she's a great reactor (as she showed playing opposite Thora Birch in Ghost World). She is surrounded by idiots, and doesn't try too hard to conceal her awareness of it.

Charlotte's photographer-husband (a jittery Giovanni Ribisi) may or may not be having a thing with a vain and stupid young American actress (Anna Faris). Bob's wife sends him peremptory faxes that buzz in his room in the middle of the night, compelling him to make decisions about redecorating their house. Neither can sleep at night, and they end up at the sky bar, where a red-headed American singer does just slightly painful versions of songs such as Scarborough Fair and Midnight at the Oasis.

Much of the movie consists of set pieces for Murray: There's a scene where the Japanese director issues long streams of direction, which the interpreter consistently translates into a word or two. In a series of slight movements of an eyebrow or smirk, Murray offers impressions of each of the members of the Rat Pack in turn (his Joey Bishop is the best). In another scene, he appears on a mad Japanese talk show. There's a lovely little scene, which looks improvised, of Murray reacting to a tiny old lady who insists on chattering away to him in Japanese in a hospital waiting room.

The central set piece is a night walk, when Bob and Charlotte run away together, like little kids on an adventure, and hit the neon nightclubs and house parties. They race away from an angry host shooting illuminated pellets. In a karaoke bar, they exchange secret messages through song.

Charlotte effects a mental seduction through Chrissie Hynde's Precious, dressed in a pink wig. Bob expresses a desire for innocence, in Nick Lowe's What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding, and yearning, in Roxy Music's More Than This. When they do end up on a bed (but not in it), they touch feet like children, and avoid the refuge of seduction for the uncomfortable talk about feeling young and unaccomplished, or middle-aged and used-up.

Lost in Translation suffers from one weakness, a kind of smugness that prevents complete identification with the characters. Perhaps all new attractions are a form of shared narcissism, but the condition seems exaggerated here. Bob's wife, heard on the telephone, sounds like a shrew (thought we might reasonably infer she's been through this before and lost her sympathy).

The American starlet makes too-obvious jokes about the wisdom of Keanu Reeves, and Charlotte's attitude toward her husband borders on disdain.

The lounge singer exists only to be mocked. Beyond their immediate families, the Japanese characters here all seem like jokes -- little people who bow and give gifts, mistranslate everything and have insane television shows. Bob and Charlotte even manage to joke about Japanese misuse of r's and l's.

If it were clear that Coppola was showing the heartless side of mutual infatuation, this might be a deeper film, not just a study of attraction in isolation. The dizzy high of an improbable romantic connection is perfectly captured; the sour notes seem to have seeped in unawares.

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