Statistics are hard to come by, but citizens hungering for meatier roles for Bill Murray could be the largest unorganized group of moviegoers in the country. For all those people -- and you know who you are -- consider this official notification: “Lost in Translation” is what you’ve been waiting for.
And the news keeps getting better. In Scarlett Johansson, Murray has a gifted co-star who is every bit his match. The film itself -- tart and sweet, unmistakably funny and exceptionally well observed -- marks the arrival of 32-year-old writer-director Sofia Coppola as a mature talent with a distinctive sensibility and the means to express it.
Coppola, who debuted with “The Virgin Suicides,” displays an offhanded but astute eye for life’s small absurdities and annoyances. Her story of the chance encounter of two dissimilar Americans at sea in a Tokyo hotel is delicately but incisively played out. This is a filmmaker who doesn’t promise more than she can deliver, who knows pushing too hard would be fatal to the points she wants to make as well as the way she wants to make them.
As the title indicates, “Lost in Translation” is a film about dislocations and disorientations. Informed by Coppola’s own experiences in Tokyo (and magically shot by cinematographer Lance Acord), the film is very smart about national differences, about the strangeness of being in a place where you don’t know the cultural markers. But that’s only part of its success.
The film is equally shrewd about noticing the ways people can be at loose ends in their intimate relationships, not exactly ready to end things but unsure where they’re headed. With a strong feel for divergent generations, “Lost” understands without having to say it that people at widely different ages can be equally uncertain about who they’re supposed to be, equally impelled to question where they want to land when they grow up.
The fact that this kind of serious material ends up playing puckishly funny as well as poignant is a tribute both to Coppola and to her do-or-die decision to cast Murray in the lead role. “I said, ‘I’m not going to make the movie if Bill doesn’t do it,’ ” the director was quoted as saying in a recent interview. “Bill has an 800 number, and I left messages. This went on for five months. Stalking Bill became my life’s work.”
What Coppola saw was that perhaps only Murray had the persona and the skills to capture the exquisite balance between the funny and the forlorn called for by the part of Bob Harris, American movie star chagrined to find himself in Tokyo getting paid $2 million to film a Suntory whisky ad.
Not only has Murray’s comic timing gotten sharper as he’s gotten older -- when he raises an eyebrow, he’s in a class by himself -- but the actor’s increased age has added to the gravitas and the sense of wistful dignity that have become his trademarks. Like Buster Keaton, his deadpan predecessor, Murray has a face that’s tragically sad in repose, and the heroic way he copes with civilization’s discontents makes you both laugh and shake your head in rueful empathy.
Though he’s being put up at the Park Hyatt, one of Tokyo’s tonier hotels, movie star Harris is baffled by the strangeness of Japan. He’s put off balance by situations he can’t believe are happening to him in a city whose oceans of nighttime neon add to its different-planet feel.
What is he to make of curtains that open by themselves, of the commercial director who (in an exquisite set piece) berates him in torrents of barely translated Japanese, or of an uninvited but insistent call girl who demands “rip my stockings” when she means “lick my stockings.” Or is it the other way around?
The additional incendiary factor is pernicious intercontinental jet lag, the kind that makes Harris wide awake at 4:30 in the morning and unnerved by a series of fax and Federal Express communications from his exasperated wife back home. It’s no wonder the actor kills time in the hotel bar or watching TV in his room. Until he meets Charlotte (Johansson).
Though she’s decades younger, Charlotte is similarly jet-lagged and floundering in Tokyo and the Park Hyatt. She’s there with her hotshot photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), but while he’s busy being on assignment and flirting with actresses like Kelly (“Scary Movie’s” very amusing Anna Faris), she’s left to dutifully sightsee and worry about where her 2-year-old marriage has left her. A phone call in which she tells friends “It’s great here” through a veil of tears says everything about her ambivalent mental state.
Because Coppola knows this age group and state of mind intimately, Charlotte is written with much more substance and reality than usual. Johansson takes it from there and makes what could have been an overly familiar characterization come completely alive.
Only 18, this accomplished actress has already done remarkable work in films like “Manny & Lo,” “An American Rhapsody,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Ghost World,” and it’s wonderful to see her naturalness, empathy for character and skill allow her to hold her own with someone as experienced and idiosyncratic as Murray.
Bob and Charlotte meet at the hotel bar and gradually find, to their mutual surprise, that they are soul mates of a sort. When she says she was a philosophy major, he replies “there’s a good buck in that racket.” When he says, as only he can, “I’m trying to organize a prison break, are you in or out?” a series of forays deeper into Tokyo result, including Bob’s words-don’t-do-it-justice karaoke rendition of Brian Ferry’s “More Than This.”
It may or may not be romance these two are reaching for in this 21st century version of 1945’s classic David Lean-directed “Brief Encounter,” but they definitely yearn for something more essential: simple human connection. Coppola’s formidable delicacy rules out any slam-bang emotionalism, but that doesn’t lessen our involvement. What “Lost in Translation” demonstrates, among many other things, is how much weight and substance something slight can have in just the right hands.
‘Lost in Translation’
MPAA rating: R for some sexual content
Times guidelines: Fairly tame, lots of innuendo but very little that’s explicit
Bill Murray...Bob Harris
An American Zoetrope/Elemental Films production in association with Tohokushinsha, released by Focus Features. Director Sofia Coppola. Producers Ross Katz, Sofia Coppola. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos. Screenplay Sofia Coppola. Cinematographer Lance Acord. Editor Sarah Flack. Costumes Nancy Steiner. Music producer Brian Reitzell. Production design Anne Ross, K.K. Barrett. Art director Mayumi Tomita. Set decorators Towako Kuwajima, Tomomi Nishio. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In limited release.