The man (Bill Murray), somewhere in the neighborhood of 50, presses his drawn face against the car window, the dancing neon of nighttime Tokyo illuminating every wrinkle and crease in his exhausted brow. His name is Bob Harris, and he is an American movie star, come to Japan — as American movie stars often do — to appear in a television commercial of the sort that he would never venture near on his home turf. Somewhere, this man has a wife and a life, both of them carrying on quite nicely, it would appear, without him. She sends carpet samples from a household renovation project via FedEx to his hotel. When he calls home, it is to be reminded that he has forgotten his son’s birthday (and, judging from the sound of it, not for the first time). Of course, he could be there; he could be doing a play for scale instead of collecting a cool $2 million for endorsing a Suntory bourbon he’s probably never even tasted. But he is not there. He is here. And he is lost.
The woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), is also lost. Barely into her 20s, she stares up quizzically at the SoHo photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who is supposed to be her husband, as he darts frantically about their suite, gathering up his equipment for a shoot. Can it be that this is the man that she married? Can it be that she is already married at all, at such a tender age, with so much of the world left to see and so many things yet to do? Can it be that this is really Tokyo she is staring out at from the windows of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, when by day, and from on high, it resembles almost any other major metropolitan city? Later, when she attempts to convey her confusion to a friend back in America, she will fail miserably. Besides, on the other end of the line, the friend is managing her own tumultuous existence and, despite her efforts to lend a sympathetic ear, is easily distracted. Though the year is 2003 and the world is, in so many ways, at its smallest, with cell phones and e-mail binding us inextricably to one another, we are, this extraordinary new movie reminds us, ever more diffused, ever less able to make meaningful connections.
The movie is writer-director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and it is the story of what happens when Bob and Charlotte cross paths, by chance, in the same hotel bar where a cover band is eternally cranking out so-bad-they’re-almost-good cover versions of such apropos standards as “The Thrill Is Gone.” In truth, they’ve spotted each other before, in the elevator, exchanged a smile even. But this is one of those hotels where familiar-looking strangers are forever sighting each other amid that strange displacement of time and place that big modern hotels can create. And surely, Bob Harris is no stranger to recognition. Even here, in this faraway locale, he cannot so much as drown his sorrows without being accosted by fans who loved him in this movie or that. Even here he cannot turn on the television in his room without seeing a younger version of himself — or turn it off without seeing his present self reflected in its darkened screen. Except that Charlotte does not know any of Bob’s movies; she recognizes in him not fame, but something deeper, a kind of shared disillusionment with everything life was supposed to turn out to be but didn’t. “You’re probably just having a midlife crisis,” she tells him in a flirtatiously offhand way, realizing — even before he does — that they are two people meeting each other at the same metaphysical point on life’s escalator, albeit moving in opposite directions. He tells her, with every curious twitch of his eyebrows and blink of his eyes, just how long it has been since he related to another human being this openly and honestly (his wife included).
After a long time wondering whether or not there is, in the immortal words of Bryan Ferry, “more than this,” a question that many have never asked themselves even at Bob’s age, Bob and Charlotte find, in each other, a momentary answer. Like the love-struck train passengers of Before Sunrise, or the man and woman who find each other in the traffic jam of Claire Denis’ recent Friday Night, they are also aware that such moments are as fleeting as they are blindsiding — that soon they will return to the lives they led before they ever met. (In their penultimate moment together, she will ask him to stay in Japan, jokingly suggesting that they start a punk band together. Would that it were so easy.) So they know they must make the most of the weekend they have together, while Charlotte’s husband is off photographing a band on some distant Japanese island. And here, unexpectedly, is a movie in which making the most of a friendship does not automatically equate to sexual consummation. Rather, Bob and Charlotte bask in the random pleasure of each other’s company,
setting off, in Lost in Translation’s most extraordinary sequence, on a midnight odyssey through Tokyo’s bars and karaoke parlors — a sequence in which Tokyo comes to life onscreen in a way that it never quite has in a movie, and in which the scenes and the performances seem to be developing spontaneously right before our eyes.
This is the second feature film written and directed by Sofia Coppola — who is just 32 years old — and, like her first (2000’s The Virgin Suicides), it possesses a maturity and wisdom well beyond her years. All the more remarkable is that Lost in Translation is an original screenplay (whereas The Virgin Suicides had Jeffrey Eugenides’ fine novel as a source), informed by Coppola’s own time spent in Japan, when she was even younger than she is now. Perhaps because of that experience, of living amid a foreign culture at a particularly impressionable moment, Coppola (in superb collaboration with cinematographer Lance Acord, who has also shot the films of Coppola’s husband, Spike Jonze) sees Japan not as some exotic Hollywood backdrop, but as an ever-shifting, organic mass of salient details unfamiliar to the Western eye. On a subtextual level, of course, Tokyo is for Coppola what England was for E.M. Forster or what Italy was for Antonioni: an expanse of disconnect. But in the resplendent, naturally lit images of Lost in Translation, the city becomes a rainbow-
colored maze of too-small bathrooms, psychedelic TV talk shows, and video-game arcades where the games are played with drumsticks instead of joysticks. And, in the telling, Coppola’s sophomore effort becomes one of the greatest, most sensual films I can recall on the subject of strangers navigating their way through a strange land.
Lost in Translation is fraught with a deep sadness and sense of yearning. Yet, it is also an enormously — at times, even uproariously — comedic film, not because it feels any obligation to be “funny” in some contrived, screenwriterly sort of way, but because Coppola has set out to make a movie set to the rhythms of real (rather than reel) life, in which there are no genres. She has cast an ostensible funnyman, Bill Murray, in a role some might consider (even after Rushmore) to be a stretch, and he has responded with a performance of emotional nakedness and humility, fully aware that this part (not unlike Bob’s brief encounter with Charlotte) isn’t just the best he’s ever had, but better than most actors ever get. Then there is Johansson, closer in age (18) to Coppola herself and capturing, in her own weary wistfulness, the simultaneous fear of new, untapped experience, and the desire for same, that are the key forces motivating this entire film. Coppola’s point being that you don’t necessarily have to be middle-aged to feel a kind of middle-aged craziness, to look out at the great void of all that is yet to come and shudder a bit, with both trepidation and the urge to leap. Maybe those of us who do just that, she seems to be saying, are, in fact, the lucky — if not necessarily the happy — few.
LOST IN TRANSLATION | Written and directed by SOFIA COPPOLA | Produced by ROSS KATZ and COPPOLA | Released by Focus Features | At AMC Century City 14, Pacific Grove, ArcLight, Loews Santa Monica