Adopting the same dreamily lyrical approach that distinguished her 1999 debut “The Virgin Suicides,” Sofia Coppola generates an even further out-of-body feeling with “Lost in Translation.” A reflection on the way alienating environments can throw unlikely people together and forge unexpected, intense relationships, this teasing seductive drama displays perceptiveness and maturity, coaxing an evocative sense of the sweet agony of unarticulated sentiments. Largely a two-hander for Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, the film’s unhurried pace will target it for discerning audiences only, but its wry humor and coolly amused observation of contemporary Japan should score with smart urbanites.
While her previous pic was based on a novel, “Translation” comes from Coppola’s original screenplay, which has a refreshingly loose, quasi-improvised quality. Reportedly written with Murray in mind, the film is superbly tailored to the actor’s signature brand of wit and deadpan delivery. Murray’s nuanced, unshowy turn here stands alongside his work in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” both of which were similar illustrations of a director deftly harnessing the comic thesp’s distinctive personality as well as his largely untapped capacity to convey pathos.
The central relationship is explored from the contrasting perspectives of a woman in her early 20s and a middle-aged man each afflicted by different yet parallel doubts about the course their life respectively is taking or has taken. Bob Harris (Murray) is a movie star in Tokyo to shoot a lucrative whisky commercial. Charlotte (Johansson) is a Yale philosophy graduate in town with her celebrity photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi).
While Bob endures the indignities of spouting inane ad dialogue and being steered through joyless promotional engagements, he contemplates his faded career and stagnant marriage. Left behind at the hotel while work-driven John is off on assignment, Charlotte reflects on how her husband has changed during two years of marriage and how her own life lacks direction. This situation of two people with too much time on their hands falling prey to nagging anxieties is rendered with elegant economy.
Crossing paths repeatedly in the artificial environment of their luxury hotel, Charlotte and Bob eventually speak in the cocktail bar, their shared bemusement with the oddities of Japan helping to fuel a rapidly evolving friendship. Bob accompanies Charlotte to a karaoke night with a bunch of acquaintances and the two start hanging out, watching late-night TV in the hotel and gradually revealing more about their personal backgrounds.
In a nicely gauged scene that appears to acknowledge Coppola’s own steps toward artistic self-expression prior to directing, Charlotte confesses to being stuck, having tried her hand at writing and photography without distinction and not knowing what to try next. Bob responds by dropping his armor of irony and talking to her about the less satisfying realities of marriage and having kids, very gently revealing his attraction to her.
While the relationship repeatedly appears poised to move to the next level, Coppola judiciously holds it back, introducing a degree of friction when Bob sleeps with a hotel lounge singer (Catherine Lambert). When it comes time for Bob to leave Tokyo, the awkwardness of the goodbye is heightened by the weight of certain unexpressed feelings, but this is satisfyingly resolved in a tender final exchange in which Bob’s words to Charlotte remain unheard.
Very much a mood piece, the film’s deft balance of humor and poignancy makes it both a pleasurable and melancholy experience. There’s nothing labored or forced in the exploration of the undefined yet intense relationship and the insights about this type of brief but indelibly memorable bond emerge quite casually.
An always appealing, unaffected actress, Johansson gives a smartly restrained performance as an observant, questioning woman with a rich interior life, perhaps a little too savvy for the man she married and aware she may face tough choices ahead. Ribisi keeps his character just on the right side of being a superficial L.A. celebrity-monde caricature. And Anna Faris contributes an amusing turn as a vacuous movie star, gushing enthusiastically about the benefits of power cleansing.
But the film is very much Murray’s vehicle and it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling his shoes so well. The actor is equally amusing making the audience complicit as he gently mocks Japanese ceremoniousness or the communication warp of speaking through an interpreter or in more physical comedy such as a scene with a deluxe-kink hooker. And his karaoke rendition of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” is sublime. In her second film, Coppola consolidates the impression of her promising debut that she’s a filmmaker confidently forging her own style, quite distinct from and seemingly uninfluenced by that of her father.
The director’s love and fascination for Japan are evident in every frame, from the neon-jungle aspect of Tokyo’s congested streets to the occasional departures into the calm of its gardens and temples.
The free-flowing narrative style is enhanced by Lance Acord’s loose, agile camerawork, by Sarah Flack’s smooth editing and by a melodic electronic score, which like “The Virgin Suicides,” is again overseen by Brian Reitzell and includes contributions from French ambient-pop duo Air.