Sofia Coppola knows how to break your heart. She'll give you wonderfully flawed characters in impossible situations and let you spend two hours sharing gorgeous but fleeting moments of insight with them. You both know, you and Sofia, that it won't end well, that the cruel reality of the world will win out in the end. You'll leave the movie thinking about things like anguish and authenticity and how cool it must be to grow up the daughter of a monumental American filmmaker.
Lost in Translation, Coppola's second film, proves once again that the young director has inherited more than a modicum of talent from her father, Francis Ford Coppola. Like her much-admired first movie, The Virgin Suicides, Translation delves into particularly American strains of hopelessness and ennui, this time projected through the dual lens of pop culture and foreign travel.
Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a bleary-eyed actor who arrives in Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial. Bob, who once made movies with lots of explosions, now drifts into the twilight of his career doing ads and TV appearances. He grimaces through the $2 million gig with just enough grace to avoid offending his Japanese hosts, though frequent faxes and calls from his minutiae-obsessed wife imply that Tokyo may actually be a respite from a barbed home life.
In an antiseptic hotel bar Bob meets fellow American Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), in town with her fashion photographer husband. United by their mutual insomnia, Bob and Charlotte launch an unlikely friendship, the kind of connection that can only be made when two people are thousands of miles from home, jetlagged and on the verge of emotional breakdowns.
Coppola keeps Lost in Translation interesting by intentionally obscuring the exact nature of Bob and Charlotte's nascent relationship, because really not a lot happens. We see Bob struggle Sisyphus-like with the language barrier, as a pushy Japanese director barks long and involved instructions at him, only to have the translator offer, "Turn your head."
Charlotte, meanwhile, spars with husband John (Giovanni Ribisi, narrator of The Virgin Suicides), who's taken to using strange new hair products and wearing windshield-sized sunglasses, accoutrements of the L.A. glitterati Charlotte wants no part of.
By the time any action starts in Lost in Translation, we've almost forgotten we were waiting on it in the first place. Bob and Charlotte cement their friendship in a frantic, random night out clubbing, where they drift from exotic discotheques to seedy dive bars. Eventually they land with a crew of drunken strangers in an intimate karaoke bar, where Bob takes the mic and moans out Roxy Music's "More Than This." The mood quickly sobers. Murray, a master at mixing slapstick with a hint of pain, finally flashes a full-on view of sadness and desperation in a sharply realized buzz-kill.
Murray's Bob evokes in such serious moments Jack Nicholson's middling miscreant in About Schmidt, another aging white guy who almost drowns in a life he can't fathom. But Charlotte, a recent college grad who struggles to apply her philosophy degree to the real world, hardly qualifies as a life raft. Johansson (Ghost World) tackles the capricious Charlotte with an understated slacker grace -- another minor casting coup for the director.
Coppola, who not only directed Translation but also wrote the screenplay, seems enamored with the idea of bouncing one's identity off the backdrop of a foreign place. Throughout the film both leads frequently stare at the flashing neon nightscape of Tokyo through soft-focus windowpanes, or discover their own reflections in unexpected places. What comes into sharpest focus here -- oddly enough -- is the tyranny of popular culture. Both Bob and Charlotte have fallen victim to pop culture in one way or another, Bob as a hapless huckster on billboards, Charlotte as an East Coast intellectual trapped in a West Coast marriage.
A brief appearance by a visiting American starlet magnifies Coppola's disdain for Hollywood shallowness. Kelly (Anna Faris, of the Scary Movie series) gushes over working with Keanu Reeves, and Coppola takes a none-too-subtle stab at the faux-Buddhist philosophy of the Matrix films.
But Lost in Translation works best when it drops the big picture pronouncements and zooms in on small moments, like Bob watching a fleet of underwater feet pulsating in a swimming pool, or Charlotte spying on a Buddhist prayer ceremony. Coppola strings together enough tiny, almost brilliant instants to overcome the film's nearly absent plot. A luminous, foreboding soundtrack from performers like Air and Kevin Shields also gives even the most monotonous scenes some hint of meaning.
That the movie almost veers into cliched romantic melodrama during its final act can be excused, mainly on the strength of all that came before it. Coppola may not have achieved the same succinctness she displayed in Suicides, but she's created an ephemeral and bittersweet travelogue that suggests we're all incidental tourists trapped in a world of unfamiliar languages, shifting intentions and captivating strangers just passing through.