Faraway, So Close

In the mood for sushi: Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in 'Lost in Translation'
Focus Features

Like the sort of fleeting, quietly intense relationship that it portrays, Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation amounts to a handful of stolen moments--and a lot more than the sum of them. In this film about an aging Hollywood star and a recent philosophy grad who meet in a Tokyo hotel while their spouses are elsewhere, Coppola's woozy style seems to grow out of the characters' carefully guarded inner states. Among them: disorientation, loneliness, desire, contentment, and, eventually, an almost postcoital sense of euphoria made prematurely melancholy by the knowledge that it can't possibly last.

More than this, as Brian Ferry would say, there is nothing. As a matter of fact, Lost in Translation plays like a dream, and gives subtle evidence of actually being one. The first shot of the graduate's supple tush in pink panties leads--with a few credits in between--to the sight of movie star Bob (Bill Murray) being bounced awake in the back of a limo bound for the Tokyo Hyatt. Maybe Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is Bob's brief glimpse, blurred by neon and saki and jetlag, of an Obsession billboard come to life. (Or maybe, as some have suggested, she's Sofia Coppola.)

In any case, despite that indelible opener, Lost in Translation isn't the airbrushed image of girls in the Male Gaze that made up the director's disconcertingly sexy The Virgin Suicides. Rather, Lost in Translation is about how disparate visions, once in a blue moon, come together to make a diptych. What Charlotte sees at the start of the movie--and it's no fantasy--is her disheveled, distracted young celebrity photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) stuffing his film rolls and his underwear into a briefcase and stumbling out of the hotel room at dawn for another big shoot. Then she spies Bob--rumpled, pockmarked, yawning--across a crowded elevator. And she smiles. (Or does she? The two will later disagree on that point.)

Coppola's elliptical, Eastern-influenced, stranger-than-paradise vibe bears trace elements of Jim Jarmusch (if not of a Napa Valley girl's first-class trip to the Orient). But there's a little Roman Holiday on the itinerary, too. Her oddly compatible wanderers share a drink in the bar and a laugh over the awful rendition of "Scarborough Fair" that an American cocktail chanteuse performs with a perverse lilt, presumably for American admirers of the Japanese admiration for American pop. (Lost in translation, indeed.) Later, sleepless in the Hyatt, Bob and Charlotte bump into one another in their hotel robes and decide to go out for a change of scenery. They run holding hands through a maze of cars stopped in traffic; they watch an old Fellini movie on TV; they go to the hospital to get an x-ray of her stubbed toe. After a night of drunken karaoke ("Gonna make you, make you, make you/Make you notice"), he tucks her in and says good night--although true intimacy is signaled only after the two start talking about the first time they saw each other. Then, all of a sudden, the pressing question finally emerges: "When are you leaving?"

Until then, time stands still in Lost in Translation: Between the hotel's open-all-night sterility and the city's perpetual grayish-blue haze, it's hard to say exactly when these brief encounters are taking place. (I'd guess that most are in the magic hour of four in the morning.) So, too, Bob and Charlotte are neither here nor there. Far from home and in between phases of life, they refuse to disappoint one another--unlike the myriad forces on either side of them.

Befitting his advanced age, Bill Murray is only marginally more than "Bill Murray," the brooding clown. But Johansson, 18 playing 23, is just beginning to bloom in Coppola's adoring frame. Particularly for her, Lost in Translation opens up a world of possibility. ("Maybe we could start a jazz band," Charlotte playfully suggests to Bob near the end.) And then it's over: What little this would-be couple has had is all they're going to get. Perhaps the ultimate sign of the movie's rare authenticity and allure is that it leaves you with the ache of incompletion--followed immediately by the urge to start again from the beginning.

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