Lost in Translation sends Bill Murray to Tokyo where he discovers that he's taller than everyone. He sings Karaoke and does bad advertisements for liquor. He hates the Japanese and spends his nights at a hotel bar wishing he could go home. Sounds like a perfect vehicle for Bill Murray styled comedy doesn't it? But by pairing him with up and coming actress Scarlet Johansson, burgeoning director Sophia Coppola achieves something far more beautiful and subtle.
Murray plays Bob, a somewhat worn out but still famous actor whose last real movie was back in the seventies. He's in Japan shooting commercials and spending his nights in a Tokyo hotel, alone and depressed. Johansson is Charlotte, a recent college grad tagging along after her husband who's doing a series of photo shoots in Japan. As the only Americans stuck in the same hotel with absolutely nothing to do, they eventually gravitate towards one another, sharing their mutual distaste for Tokyo along with a deep rooted sense of longing for a better the future.
Tokyo is portrayed as a gorgeous city of lights and constant activity. Moments of claustrophobic city living, such as an insanely cramped apartment party, are offset by stunning city vistas, like a particularly breathtaking shot of Bill Murray golfing in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Any city that can look this ALIVE as the backdrop for a camera should be getting more play from Hollywood. For Lost in Translation it provides a melting pot of unexpected moments which Coppola uses to make the movie and its characters feel truly alive.
Through their relationship of biting cynicism, Johansson brings out an endearing sweetness in Murray that despite a long resume of wholly memorable performances has never actually evidenced itself before. Bill doesn't ever blow things over with an all out attack of humor. Instead he keeps his performance simple. He plays things close to the vest and lets out little gasps of sarcasm for us revel and roll around in while quietly falling in love with Bob.
Somehow, Charlotte reaches him and awakens the soft, caring soul that?s been buried away inside him. She finds things in him that have not been found by the other women in his sphere, in particular his wife, who seems to care more about carpet squares than a crisis in Bob's life. Charlotte is on the other hand lost in a deluge of options and choices. She's questioning her marriage and her life. Despite a loving husband, she feels deeply alone. Bob fills the empty place inside her by happily participating in her cynical world view.
Murray and Johansson, without reservation, deliver two of the most deceptively simple performances of the year. It is easy to forget either of them is acting. At some point their on screen persona melts into the actors we already know and Lost in Translation feels almost as if it has become the world's most entertaining documentary about the clashing culture of Japan swirling around two fragile people.
Interestingly, there is never any true sense that their relationship is sexual. In fact, Lost in Translation defies any such convention at every turn. Instead, Bob and Charlotte develop a kind of deep, abiding, grasping, needing love of support and mutual loneliness appearing at just the right time in each of their lives. Any cliché Hollywood relationship manual that writers might have floating around out there has been tossed right out the window in favor of something more meaningful and authentic.
Lost in Translation is delicate, heartfelt, and mesmerizing. Somewhere around all that depth it also manages to be funny. It never flattens you with laughs, yet it does sneak around behind you to steal a few smiles. Coppola (whose only other work of note was the well received Virgin Suicides) has made a comedy about people of opposite sexes and love without making a romantic comedy. Lost in Translation is not a movie about passion or lust, but about finding someone who's just as lost as you are.