Bill Murray as Bob Harris
Scarlett Johannson as Charlotte
Anna Farris as Kelly
Giovani Ribissi as John
An instant formula for comedy: Put Bill Murray in a foreign country where he can’t speak the language and is completely out of his element. Instant formula for drama: Partner Murray with a woman over half his age in a “two ships in the night” friendship. Combining these two premises into a cohesive film would seem like a daunting task for the best of directors, so it’s not surprising that Sofia Coppola, daughter of one of Hollywood’s most famous directors, has taken on such a lofty task for her second feature-length film. Shot entirely in Japan, Lost in Translation becomes more than your normal fish-out-of-water comedy and more than an awkward romance.
Bill Murray plays rundown movie star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to do commercials for a Japanese whiskey company. His inevitable jetlag and problems sleeping are compounded by an impending mid-life crisis and family troubles back home, forcing him to spend his free time drinking at the bar. There, he meets Charlotte (Johannson), a young woman tagging along with her photographer husband (Ribissi). The two strangers strike up a fast friendship as they travel through the streets of Tokyo, experiencing the strange culture of the city together.
Lost in Translation is a bit of a departure from Ms. Coppola’s last movie, the coming-of-age drama The Virgin Suicides. The plot is simpler and more streamlined, allowing the small cast to grow as characters, and the sublime scenes of aquarobics and karaoke seem even more bizarre when you realize that Coppola worked in Japan, where she might have experienced many of the same things as her characters.
Bill Murray’s performance is the obvious centerpiece of her film. It’s a career-defining role for Murray, much like Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-worthy turn in About Schmidt last year. Murray is at the top of his game, whether he’s battling an out-of-control exercise machine or reacting to the direction of a Japanese photographer. He handles each situation with the type of sly retorts that he’s best known for, and he’s such a brilliant comedic actor that he can elicit laughs with a simple look. While the first half of the movie is made up of short segments that let Murray do his normal schtick, the second half allows him to shine as a multi-faceted actor, pulling a worldly sadness from his repertoire that makes his part more poignant.
Although Scarlett Johannson was only 18 when she made this movie, she already received many accolades for her performances in the independent movies, Manny and Lo in 1996, and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World in 2001. In the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, she also had a similar May-to-September friendship with Billy Bob Thornton. None of those performances foreshadowed her ability to take on such a strong and mature role. She plays straight woman to Murray one moment and an anchor of support the next, yet she is never overshadowed by the more charismatic actor. However you look at it, this is her movie, proving that she has a future among the echelons of serious dramatic actresses.
When their characters finally met, there seems to be little immediate chemistry-they seem almost uncomfortable-but their relationship grows over the course of the movie, much like real friendships develop the longer people know each other. The sexual tension is so apparent that half of you wants them to get together, while the other half is repulsed by the idea of seeing a relationship with such a vast age difference come to fruition. Fortunately, Coppola handles it tastefully, and the movie doesn’t turn into a Japanese version of Autumn in New York.
One of Coppola’s best traits as a director is to bring out the best in her cast as well as to make them look good on screen. Although he’s showing his age, Murray has never looked better, and a lot of his performance could be attributed to the freedoms given to him by the director. To help show the difficult marriage, Coppola also creates an interesting contrast between Johannson and her on-screen husband, Giovani Ribisi. She looks older and wiser than ever, while he looks very young. Anna Faris, star of two (soon to be three) Scary Movies, provides the only other significant supporting role. She seems to have little shame, hamming it up as ditzy actress friend of Charlotte’s husband, who is so blatantly stupid that it provides some intensely funny moments.
Otherwise, there are times when it seems like you’re laughing at the Japanese rather than with them, and some of the scenes might have been more appropriate for the FOX show, “Banzai”. Much of the movie’s humor comes from the Japanese’s poor English and Murray’s inability to understand them.
As would be expected from the filmmaker who hired French pop group Air to do the soundtrack for her last feature, Lost in Translation has one of the best soundtracks of the year, mixing cool ambient music from My Bloody Valentine guitarist, Kevin Shields, with modern electronica. The use of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” might very well be the most perfect use of a pop song in a movie ever. As beautiful as Tokyo is already, this perfect combination of music and visuals makes it seem almost magical. Beyond the characters and their story, the film becomes a travelogue of the city that could be compared to some of Fellini’s more esoteric works.
Lost in Translation is a welcome change of pace that has you laughing one minute and then tugs on your heartstrings the next. Although it doesn’t seem like there is very much to the story at first, there are many wonderful moments that stick in your memory for weeks, and they bring a smile to your face when you least expect it. Needless to say, Ms. Coppola is well on her way to becoming a talent in her own right, and Lost in Translation is a great next step in that journey.
Lost in Translation opens in New York and L.A. this weekend, and then expands into other cities over the course of September.
Read our new interview with director Sophia Coppola here.