Lost in Translation would have been good enough if it was simply a disconnected collection of riffs on Bill Murray’s historic antics. The film is packed with just that. There’s Murray singing Elvis Costello karaoke, laying down a half-dozen Rat Pack impersonations and sinking underwater in a hotel hot tub as if it’s too painful to keep breathing.
But Murray was always a better actor than his comedy-heavy career implied. And this film brings out Murray’s best.
While it’s Murray’s deft ability with humor — both physical and cerebral — that opens Lost in Translation up to potential, it’s his other abilities that make good on it. Wes Anderson was able to drag out a similar performance from Murray in Rushmore.
Lost in Translation is written and directed by another young filmmaker with a stunner under her belt, Sofia Coppola, who made the ethereal, Grosse Pointe-based story, The Virgin Suicides.
Where Rushmore easily surpassed Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, so too does Lost in Translation represent an unthinkable step forward for Coppola.
Murray plays Bob Harris, a middle-aged actor who is so big in Japan that he’s getting paid $2 million to endorse the Japanese whiskey Suntory (known to Americans for its prominent years-long position among the neon circus of New York City’s Times Square). Depressed and lonely, Bob arrives in Tokyo for a commercial shoot and discovers there’s no better place to wallow. The shower heads are too low for anybody more than 6 feet tall, the politeness-obsessed Japanese are waiting to greet him at every turn with gushing enthusiasm and his wife sends faxes by the hour nagging him about redecorating the house. When Suntory sends him a hooker, he has difficulty making her understand he just wants to be left alone.
In early scenes, Lost in Translation misses no opportunity to lampoon the utter foreignness to Americans of the culture of the rising sun, relentlessly pouring on the cultural disconnect as Bob struggles to grok Tokyo.
Enter fresh college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who is having her own trouble dealing with the Far East. Charlotte seems just as disenchanted with her life as Bob. While her rock-photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) runs all over the country shooting celebrities and flirting with a B movie star he runs into at their hotel, Charlotte is left marooned in what she perceives as a hostile, unintelligible land. But she’s struggling, as well, with metaphysical questions. Her biggest fear is losing the ability to “feel anything.” Her social isolation is eventually what ties Charlotte to Bob.
The two meet in the hotel bar, drawn together by communal eye-rolling. Charlotte is half Bob’s age, but in her he sees potential, and in him she sees guidance. They become buddies for an all-too-brief Tokyo week, laughing at the absurdity of this different world and sharing the particular spaces they occupy in the timeline of life. It’s clearly a relationship that burns bright and fast, fueled by circumstance and the fact that their connection never could be re-created once they were back home. Their time together is a fantasy come true, as is Lost in Translation as a whole.
The tender interplay between Murray and Johansson is carefully wrapped in a translucent tissue of self-mockery that belies the authenticity of their feelings. Johansson, for her part, operates on the same muted level she wore in Ghost World, but it works much better for her here. The pair might be lost in a shortsighted sense of the word, but one gets the sense that they’ll never be more at home, more sure of themselves, than they are during their few days together. It’s a feeling that spiders through the film.
Lost in Translation is a Murray love-fest, no doubt — it’s impossible to imagine another actor assuming his role — but it’s much more than that. It’s not just Bob and Charlotte that are found. It’s Murray too — centered, funny and true, finally fully realized in a faraway land.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.