Lost in Translation 

(R) 4 stars

(R) 4 stars
Lost in Translation is a drama with laughs, a study of dislocation and a valentine to Tokyo. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), it is an odd little wonder that is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The movie is borne of Coppola’s affection for Tokyo and her memories of extended stays in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, where much of the production is shot. Over the course of a few days, Coppola repeatedly encountered certain other guests in the hallways and cafés, building quasi-relationships with them that consisted almost solely of half-smiles and nods. Her sense of dislocation is reflected in the two lead characters. Her love of the city shows in the rich cinematography.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a major movie star in town to make an obscene amount of money by appearing in a whiskey commercial. He would never lower himself to do such a thing in America, but Japan is so far away, the paycheck is so big and the contract specifies that the ads will never be seen back home. Besides, Gregory Peck, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Sean Penn and numerous other top tier actors have done ads in Japan for decades, so what’s the harm? But Bob has jet lag and can’t sleep. He is in the middle of a midlife crisis, his longtime marriage is far from sparkling and the powers that be want him to stay in town a bit longer to appear on some talk show. Bob only knows a few words of Japanese, so he hangs around the hotel a lot, checking out the lavish facilities while retreating from the occasional American fan. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) can’t sleep either. In town with photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), the young bride hoped the trip would put some life back into their two-year marriage. Instead, John is so fixated on his work that she might as well have stayed at home. Looking to be more than just a spouse, but unsure how to fill the void in her existence, she tries to keep busy, but too often just ends up wandering around the hotel. The two meet, of course, and cautiously forge an alliance. She shows him her favorite local spots and takes him to a party. They drink — too much — and share with each other. The alliance begins to resemble a friendship, one tempered by the awareness that they will soon return to their very separate worlds. Lost in Translation is the distinctive sights and sounds of a slice of Tokyo where dreamy pop songs throb while giant images of elephants and dinosaurs stride across the face of a skyscraper — part of a benign Blade Runner-style cityscape. It is the disorientation of outsiders trying to navigate in a place where they do not speak the language. It is about eloquence at unexpected moments, the peculiar comfort that accompanies melancholy and the wonder, and fragility, of a new friendship. Bill Murray gives the most subtle, and possibly the best, performance of his career as Bob the bummed-out movie star. In exceptional films like Groundhog Day and Rushmore, he proved his ability to make dour characters funny and compelling. Watch his work here: his adeptness with slapstick comedy, his ability to take the tiniest change of expression, or twist in inflection, and convey so much. Amazing. Scarlett Johansson holds her own with Murray, which is quite an accomplishment. She has a long career ahead of her. Of the supporting cast, Giovanni Ribisi is fine and Anna Faris absolutely nails her part as a vacuous young star holding court at a press junket in the hotel. A moment on the soapbox: A couple of pieces I read about this film bemoaned the infusion of American pop culture into Tokyo, claiming the city is at odds with its own heritage. I don’t buy that. The Tokyo shown here is a thriving, contemporary city that takes American pop culture and swallows it whole. They’re not cloning us; they’re upping the ante in a metropolitan wonderland that reflects their own sensibility. Lost in Translation celebrates a city in robust health along with two foreigners muddling their way through it. What a nice treat.

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