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Lost in Translation

Humor, Tenderness, and Bill Murray

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

By Marcy Dermansky

Lost in Translation - Bill Murray

Mathew Minami and Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation"

Sofia Coppola has made the kind of movie that I love to see most. "Lost In Translation" is a simple story that is not driven by plot. Instead, mood, character, and place matter. The place is Tokyo, lovingly brought to life with its Buddhist shrines, herds of electronic dinosaurs, and spectacular views from the elegant hotel where the film's discontented heroes stay, meet, and in fall in love.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a fading, middle-aged movie star who comes to Tokyo to make whiskey commercials for a ridiculously high fee. Temporarily running away from his life and the constant demands of his wife (who remains a nagging voice on the telephone), Harris is a lonely man. He is disconcerted by the absolute foreignness of Japan. Lost in a strange country, he is unable to sleep. His disappointment in himself is palpable. Coppola wrote the role especially for Bill Murray and courted him, knowing that she would not make the film without him. Given Murray's warm and nuanced performance, it is impossible to imagine any other actor who could have pulled off such an unaffected combination of humor and tenderness. Bob Harris is reminiscent of Murray's Herman Blume in "Rushmore"--funny and wry and wanting.

Harris finds himself drawn to a younger woman who is also staying in the hotel. Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is also married, but she feels neglected and disillusioned with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) who fawns over starlets and wears "hair products." Like Bob, Charlotte feels lost in the life that she has chosen; she, too, cannot sleep.

The hotel becomes a private universe for Charlotte and Bob, who find themselves continuously running into each other, at the bar, in the crowded elevator, at the sleek hotel swimming pool.

Young Johansson, who, at eighteen, is playing a character five years her senior, is another treasure for Coppola. The camera often lingers on the actress's serious face to capture a feeling. At times too, we are treated to a generous view of Johansson's round bottom. This use of underwear is not exploitive or frivolous; Coppola is able capture the feeling of youthful confusion by showing Charlotte alone in her hotel room. She inhabits the small space restlessly, dressed in her pink briefs and a sweater, smoking the occasional cigarette, leafing bored through glossy magazines and staring longingly out the window. Johansson is a beautiful actress with a surprisingly deep, flat voice. Dressed in understated, stylish clothes, with her long hair and thick bangs, the mix of girl and woman in Johansson is often transfixing.

Eventually, Bob and Charlotte leave the hotel together, and just as it had become their world, Tokyo seems to exist solely for their own needs and desires.

Though "Lost In Translation" on the surface appears to be a comedy, the film is also a meditation on longing and lack of fulfillment. Falling in love in a strange city is not terribly convenient or desirable for either Bob or Charlotte. A subtle layer of tension is always present that no amount of Karaoke or whacky Japanese antics can shake. In an enthralling, nervous moment, the two lie fully clothed on a bed in the middle of the night, and Bob cautiously reaches out to touch Charlotte's bare foot. This is the power of Sofia Coppola's film: the ability to keep an audience spellbound by the small, quiet details of life.

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