Big in Japan 

A review of Lost in Translation

click to enlarge Bill Murray is Bob Harris, a whiskey company model, who meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Sofia Coppolas Lost in Translation.
  • Bill Murray is Bob Harris, a whiskey company model, who meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Sofia Coppolas Lost in Translation.

*Lost in Translation (R)
Focus Features

There should be a special MPAA rating for films like Lost in Translation. Not the alphanumeric sort designed to gratify Joe Lieberman moralists, but something more pragmatic.

Let's call it BP: Be Patient or, to borrow from the Boy Scouts of America, Be Prepared. Advance knowledge that a film offers little by way of instant gratification, much less plot, but ultimately justifies itself down the road helps out in the same way road signs or weather reports do. A few relatively recent examples of BP-rated films include David Lynch's The Straight Story, Todd Haynes's Safe, and everyone's favorite suppertime talker, Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre.

If you can overcome high-concept expectations, Sofia Coppola's sophomore effort is anything but sophomoric. It's an observational mood piece about loneliness and the potential of unlikely connections between unlikely people in, you guessed it, unlikely places.

Coppola made her directorial premiere three years ago with The Virgin Suicides, an exercise in overwrought teen angst and superficial '70s pop culture nostalgia. As one born into cinematic royalty, there was no shortage of critical sniping that she'd never have directed if not for her membership in Hollywood's lucky sperm club. While this may very well be the case, Lost in Translation should silence the nepotism naysayers.

In a city where the neon lights and electronic gadgetry stand in stark contrast to the hurried formality of its residents, American actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) camps out in a sleek hotel. In Tokyo, he finds that the end of a career looks a lot like the billboard photo of himself that beams above Tokyo's version of Times Square.

By day, Harris is shooed from photo shoot to photo shoot by the whiskey company that's paying him $2 million to preen like Thurston Howell III for its product. Back in his hotel room, Harris is greeted by a Fed Ex full of carpet swatches from his wife of 25 years: a sure sign that his home life has become as foreign as his celebrity. To take the edge off he quietly numbs himself at the hotel bar, where American jazz singers come to die.

There, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a sullen and snarky 23-year-old who's tagging along on the business trip of her distant photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Johansson is a one-woman pathos factory whose depressive restlessness is given a degree of intelligence not easily rendered, much less by a 19-year-old actress.

Coppola refreshingly avoids what could easily descend into a staid midlife crisis film about yet another older-man-younger-woman tryst. While there's an undeniable sexual tension between this unlikely pair, both Bob and Charlotte not only know better, but also want something more. It's the spark of desperately needed connectivity and recognition of their respective desperation. Perhaps it's only bourgeois ennui, but both Murray and Johansson are so emotionally on target that such clichs aren't a hindrance.

Setting the story in Tokyo, which by American standards is at once familiar and exotic, provides a backdrop that makes this unusual convergence that much stranger. Who hasn't fallen in love on vacation? Who hasn't been seduced as much by its ephemeral nature as the lover in question? Who hasn't lost it in a lonely city?

Lost in Translation is less about cultural differences, age-inappropriate relationships or adultery. Rather it explores the fleeting connections that come about when we expect them least and need them most. It's also quite funny, complete with an understated slapstick sensibility rarely seen in the American art house. Bill Murray on a treadmill, Bill Murray with a thickly accented Japanese hooker, Bill Murray at a karaoke bar.

The laughs come to those who wait. BP.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak, Cinemark 16

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