What is it about Tokyo?
The omnipresent glow of neon? The giddy, ultramodern pop culture? The distinctly familiar foreignness? Maybe the mix of Zen-minimalism and hi-tech innovation?
Whatever it is, Sofia Coppola seems to have perfectly captured the intoxicatingly disorienting allure of Japan in her new dreamscape of a film, “Lost in Translation.” The second-time director/writer easily lives up to her famous pedigree and the warm reception of her first picture, the heartbreaking suburban gothic, “The Virgin Suicides.”
“Lost” follows the parallel dazes of two wayward Americans left floating in Tokyo for a week with little to do and too much on their minds. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a slump-plagued movie star in town to shoot endorsements for a swinging whiskey eager to exploit his waning appeal. His career and marriage crumbling before him, Bob’s middle-aged anxiety nears a fever pitch.
Recent Yale-graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) knows how he feels. Trailing behind her rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Japan, she’s stuck in a liminal funk with no career plans or close friends to anchor her. She whittles at time by wandering the city streets, sulking in her room and hiding from her martial and misgivings in the hotel bar.
It’s in the bar that the jetlagged pair meets and forms an inexpressible bond, a quick, deep connection between struggling souls far from home. It’s a friendship nearly teetering on romance, but Coppola depends on that fragile, distinctive balance. She allows the characters to unfold at a delicate but relaxed pace, giving Murray and Johansson plenty of time to build nuance-rich performances. Plot is an afterthought to evoking emotion and textures in Bob and Charlotte’s relationship as they drift though Toyko’s nightlife.
Murray is in top-form, straddling the line between comedy and tragedy with the twist of his face at his own sad jokes, a break in his voice while singing Roxy Music’s “More Than This” at a karaoke bar or bittersweet smile when Charlotte walks into his elevator. Tokyo is an undersized playground for his comedy persona as he dryly rifts to comfort himself as much as to express his frustration at losing his direction. Murray’s only reference points are his own screen persona and maybe a funnier, confidence-shaken Bogart.
At a mere 18 years old, Johansson invests in her roll a powerful world-weariness beyond her age, but shifts effortlessly back into a touching child-like vulnerability. Charlotte’s habit of lounging in her underwear while listening to cheap self-help tapes suggests a forlorn teenager in her bedroom, yet her maturity leaps through in scenes with Bob, ending any misgivings about their age differences.
Johansson possibly benefits from playing a fictionalized version of her director. With Coppola’s own husband, Spike Jonze’s mannerisms and fashion sense, Ribisi is an obvious stand-in for the “Adaptation” director. Coppola’s willingness to explore or at least re-imagine her own experiences deepens the intensely personal feel of this beautifully rendered journey, molding a wistful yet surprisingly comforting classic.
Rating: 4 1/2 stars