Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a failing A-list movie star traveling to Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial that will net him millions. In a deteriorating marriage and a father to two kids, yet as lonely as he's ever been, Bob spends his nights awake with insomnia, forced to scrutinize himself. In his hotel, Bob meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, "Ghost World"), a young newlywed who is stuck in the city waiting for her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to finish his assignment. Alone and bored stiff, the two strike up a nervous relationship that blossoms into full-blown friendship as the week rambles along and they share adventures in a city they know precious little about. It's only when their friendship threatens to become something more that the two must step back and understand the true effect they've had on one another.
A spectacular film set inside a small imploding story, Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (IMDb listing) proves that her masterful work on 2000's "The Virgin Suicides" was not a fluke. Moving away from the suburban 1970s setting, and taking her interests to modern day Tokyo, Coppola stages not only a valentine to the city of Tokyo, but to the human heart as well. The best part of any romantic film is when the leads recognize the critical chemistry they have growing between them, yet are powerless to do anything about it. While most onscreen relationships are eventually consummated, "Translation" stays inside that reserved, wistful area where declarations of love and sex are kept at arm's length. "Translation" is a story of heartache, but conceived by Coppola not as a downer, but as a luminous observance of attraction and connection in unlikely situations.
Shot on location in Tokyo, Coppola photographs the city unlike many would in her position. Gone are the double-gun-fisted criminals and overbearing technology of the city. As Coppola sees it, Japan is a country of emerging textures, yet retaining glorious culture once you step outside of the city areas. She takes time to drink in the way of life, having Charlotte and Bob take some day trips to the fringes of the area, and allowing their characters to be the audiences' eyes to this very distinctive world. Captured by Lance Acord, "Translation" does away with the tightly controlled artistry of "Suicides," and lets the film go off, often handheld, into the apartments, streets and bars of the city. Japan has rarely looked as welcoming as it does in "Translation."
The change in location also adds needed depth to Charlotte and Bob's relationship, making the title's meaning that much sweeter, and often hilarious. A perfect example is the film's karaoke scene, where Bob stands up and performs "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" for a crowd of drunken 20-somethings. The scene is great, and Murray-reliable funny. Yet, when the mood quiets down, and Bob tackles Roxy Music's "More Than This," the words take on deeper meaning, as Charlotte and Bob start to see the changes in their relationship open up in front of their eyes. Perfection.
Granted, nothing comes close to having Bill Murray in his prime, in such films as "Stripes" or "Ghostbusters." But in these past few years, Murray has turned a very interesting corner in his career. While not dropping his smarmy, hipster comedy angle in his performances, Murray has embraced his age, playing lovable sad sacks in Wes Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums" and his unjustly Oscar-ignored turn as Herman Blume in "Rushmore." Murray's Bob is written along the same lines as Blume; factoring in an unloving marriage and a general depression about the way his life has turned out. Without the advantage of Anderson's hyper-reality, Murray is playing pretty close to himself in "Translation," adding another layer of authenticity to Coppola's film. His work here is nothing short of a career peak, mixing in his own renowned apathy for the entertainment biz along with a sweet, humble characterization of a man who finally notices what he wants out of life. Always reliable for something of note, "Translation" marks Murray's finest dramatic turn to date. Of course, that doesn't mean Murray isn't funny. Watching Bob deal with Japanese photographers or act playful with Charlotte is rock-steady Murray, but the thin layer of melancholy running through the character makes the experience all the more fulfilling.
Co-star Scarlett Johansson has the more troublesome role. She must portray attraction to Murray without slipping into "Lolita" mode, or the dreaded melodramatic May-December domain. While Johansson isn't the comedian Murray is, their chemistry is one to step back in awe of. A 35-year gap separates the actors, but it is easy to accept them as a couple. Johansson steadfastly maintains her character's intelligence and maturity, without her stooping to childish pranks to sell the differences between Charlotte and Bob. Through her writing, Coppola does all the work for Johansson in this regard. Johansson matches Murray in just about every way, making them, outside of Freddy and Jason, to be one of the more peculiar, yet lovely screen couples of 2003.
Coppola ends "Translation" on a wonderful, secretive note, also staying away from emotional indulgence. We leave the film with the sounds of "Just Like Honey" by the Jesus and Mary Chain, and that's exactly the note to end on. With the guitars dripping with feedback, trying to cover up the sweet melody, "Lost In Translation" is doing the very same thing. Coppola is now two-for-two, surpassing even her father, Francis, or husband Spike Jonze, in the quality of her recent product. I can't wait to see what she does next.
Filmfodder Grade: A