In a hotel bar in Tokyo, a man turns to a beautiful stranger and quips, “I’m trying to organize a prison break. Are you in or are you out?” He doesn’t yet realize that the sexy young woman he’s teasing is the key to his escape from a paralyzing mid-life crisis — and not in the way you might expect. Lost in Translation is a simple, introspective story, a dreamy dalliance observing two lost souls as they discover each other and share warmth in a cold and confounding place. Director Sofia Coppola, in a work that catapults her to the A-list of art-film directors, captures truths and emotions few other directors have even attempted. She also coaxes the most accomplished work of Bill Murray’s career and an endearing, exquisite performance from co-star Scarlett Johansson.
Murray plays Bob, a spotlight-weary celebrity whose career has carried him out of his element. He’s a superstar sponsor posing for commercials, lamenting that he could be back in the States doing a play instead. He repeatedly raises his glass for the cameras, reciting, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” To his chagrin, Bob discovers iced tea in the glass, not whiskey. Back in the hotel room, his phone calls home to his wife are frustrating — the sound of a marriage on life support. So he whiles away the hours in the hotel bar. With sadness staining his sarcasm (and karaoke singing), Murray is an encyclopedia of subtle expression. He makes Bob a joy to watch.
Fortunately, Bob is in the same hotel as Charlotte (Johansson), the young wife of an American photographer. Charlotte is bored silly, waking up to the hard realities of marriage as her work-obsessed, scatterbrained husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) fawns over a ditzy American actress (Anna Faris). John still loves Charlotte, but he’s too busy to notice her seductive passes or her identity crisis. She needs intimacy and attention. Dislocated and despairing, she stares down on Tokyo and weeps. Johansson depicts her perfectly, with the kind of intelligent beauty that could bring Krzysztof Kieslowski out of his grave to cast her in a new Colors film.
Yes, Bob and Charlotte meet. Yes, there are sparks, but not of the erotic sort. Through their tongue-in-cheek flirtation, you can sense their lonely hearts groping for companionship. Instead of plunging into something reckless, they show admirable restraint, developing an affectionate trust. Together they remind us that anything can become meaningful when experienced in the context of a loving relationship.
It feels like a true story. Coppola’s script has roots in her own Tokyo travels; she shoots the whole film there with fond familiarity. I haven’t seen a filmmaker so taken with a city since Wim Wenders mourned and celebrated Berlin in Wings of Desire. The cinematography turns Tokyo into an additional character—an eccentric, baffling stranger. We drift, discover and delight in some things, and withdraw in dismay from others. But in the end, we are sorry to leave the place, and sorrier to part ways with these wonderful characters.