With Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola seems to have set herself the task of capturing jet lag on film. And to say that she's succeeded is both to praise and to damn with faint praise. Few directors have done a better job of conveying the disorienting effect of modern travel ' the way the body gets there before the mind does. And fewer still have understood the advantages of jet lag, the way disorientation can lead to reorientation. Still, however well she's done it, Coppola has captured jet lag on film ' a dubious accomplishment, some might argue. Watching the movie, you may find yourself feeling a little drowsy, then giddy, then bored, then drowsy again. And for all I know, that's exactly how Coppola wants us to feel. If so, she's committed the imitative fallacy ' made a disorienting film about disorientation. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I could have used some melatonin.
A love story of sorts, Lost in Translation is set in Tokyo, which we Americans don't tend to associate with love, but you never know what will happen to strangers in a strange land. Plus, there's that jet lag, which sends all the night-crawlers down to the hotel bar in the wee hours. That's where Bob, a past-his-prime movie star played by Bill Murray, meets Charlotte, a recent philosophy grad played by Scarlett Johansson. Bob and Charlotte have several things in common, it turns out. Both of them are unable to sleep. Both of them are unable to establish meaningful contact with their spouses. Both of them are unable to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. And last but not least, both of them are unable to figure out what to do with the other. Are they friends? Lovers? Strangers? Or are they inhabitants of a space-time continuum all their own, floating above Tokyo like weary ghosts?
Bob and Charlotte are staying in the Park Hyatt, a high-rise that towers over the teeming metropolis, and you get the impression that, for Coppola, Tokyo is less a city than a state of mind, less a location than a dislocation. Much is made of the fact that the people there speak ' hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen ' Japanese! "Why did they switch the 'r's and 'l's here?" Charlotte asks Bob, not expecting an answer. "Just for yuks," Bob says. And although the movie gets too many laughs at the expense of the Japanese people, this isn't one of them. This is Bob and Charlotte speaking a language of their own, one that's laced with irony as a way of cheering each other up. Their conversations, which lie at the heart of Lost in Translation, are so deadpan they're practically Beckettian. Neither is trying to impress the other. Neither is trying to win the other over. Nevertheless, both are won over.
It's a strange relationship, somewhat reminiscent of the what-might-have-been romance in David Lean's Brief Encounter as well as the what-still-might-be romance in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. The difference is that we don't associate Bill Murray with romance. They're using the "O" word to describe Murray's performance. Many felt he was cheated out of an Oscar nomination for Rushmore, where he played a rich guy with no joie de vivre. Here, he plays a rich guy with just enough joie de vivre to keep Lost in Translation from sinking into a major depression, and maybe that'll do the trick this time. Murray's erased the quotation marks that used to enclose every move he made, leaving us with the sense that he's playing himself ' a man who can be funny upon request but would prefer we not ask. Although the part was written especially for him, Coppola had to beg Murray to do it.
But an Oscar? Gee, I don't know. Why do we always salute actors for abandoning the things that drew us to them in the first place? Murray was dreadful in Razor's Edge, where he tried to be a serious actor. And he was fantastic in Groundhog Day, where he allowed the seriousness to emerge from the comedy. He really only has two modes of expression ' comedy, when he smiles, and tragedy, when he doesn't. And he's just not a resourceful enough actor to show us hidden depths. But he's more than fine in the movie, as is Johansson, who underplays even more than Murray does. Still in her teens when the movie was shot, Johansson has one of those still-forming faces, like a flower that's just popped open. Her features are a little smudgy, which works perfectly for a character who, through a veil of tears, tells a friend on the phone what a wonderful time she's having in Tokyo.
Coppola, who wrote as well as directed, may have based Charlotte on herself. Certainly, Charlotte's husband, given an egotistically distracted air by Giovanni Ribisi, bears a resemblance to Coppola's husband, Spike Jonze, who directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. But what is Coppola trying to tell us about this lovely, lonely woman? That she's lovely and lonely? The movie doesn't have much of a plot, which isn't a problem, but it doesn't have much forward momentum either, which may be. Instead, what it has is a feeling ' that free-floating feeling of being stuck between time zones, when sights and sounds blur together. Coppola turns Tokyo into an ocean of neon, the karaoke bars and pachinko parlors clogging the screen, like kelp. She also allows the soundtrack to go haywire; when a fax machine spits out a page, it sounds like someone cocking a shotgun. The movie's nothing if not virtuosic.
Primarily, though, it's atmospheric ' cloudy, with intermittent showers. (Even the funny parts seem sad.) Coppola's being given the coronation treatment right now by the entertainment press for having followed up her first film, The Virgin Suicides, with one that's equally ambitious, equally accomplished, and for having managed to forge an artistic personality all her own in the shadow of her celebrated father. She may never be able or willing to tackle a project with the narrative complexity of the Godfather movies. But if the emotional travelogue she's prepared for us this time is any indication, she knows how to make One From the Heart.