For The Nashville City Paper
Oscar is being used in the same breath with the names of the two principal performers in Lost in Translation, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and none of the hoopla is hype. This is one of the most emotionally piercing movies I’ve seen in a long time. The film was written and directed by Sofia Coppola who along with this film and The Virgin Suicides won’t have to take a back seat to daddy.
Murray plays Bob, a desolate American movie star who comes to Tokyo to sell Japanese wares for exorbitant sums of money as many Hollywood stars do. Charlotte (Johansson) is a reticent, smart Yale graduate who is a bit lost about what to do with her life and a fairly new marriage that seems already be hemorrhaging passion. She has come to Tokyo with her rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) with little to do in the city alone.
Charlotte’s husband is a self-absorbed knucklehead who will never be able to plumb the joys of her complicated self. As well, the connection in Bob’s longstanding marriage has been reduced to picking wall colors for his study from samples his wife has Fed Ex’d him. The two characters have little onscreen time together in the beginning of the film as the movie slowly tells us who they are apart from each other.
Murray gives us brilliant physical comedy and pared down, droll delivery of lines that manage to be both funny and sad. His character is still part lounge lizard from Saturday Night Live, but here that is muted beneath a wrenching streak of pathos. The effect Tokyo has on Charlotte perfectly matches Bob’s feeling of disconnection to the city and to the culture. When Charlotte accidentally wanders into a Buddhist monastery, the incident cuts into her spiritual bankruptcy and makes her cry later in a phone conversation to her mother who seems unavailable to her emotionally.
It turn, the showerheads are too short for Bob. He can’t relate to the PR blitz in his honor and the blinds in his suite fly up in the morning on a timer. Tokyo is one of the most surreal and stimulating cities in the world. Hence, neither can sleep. The over-animated culture and insomnia tosses them into a kind of stunned, helpless boredom. They bump into each other casually at night in the bar and then at the pool and eventually find that they like each other’s company.
The dialogue is rich and wry, but most of all it rings true. Murray’s character has such depth that it is seems unlike anything he, or anyone else in recent films, has done. And the alchemy between the two generates so much implied power that it seems nearly impossible that they will manage to not make the leap from friends to lovers. What they manage is something more achingly sublime, something caught in between love, respect and winsome resignation. I almost felt a sense of vertigo at the film’s exacting end.
The first line in Scott Peck’s pull-no-punches book, The Road Less Traveled, is “Life is difficult.” Charlotte is just beginning to understand. But it is written all over Bob’s soul, and it is the primary source of his lovability in that he has managed to remain vulnerable. Their weeklong intersection is a wondrous microscopic probe into that kind of kinship that forces us to look inside ourselves to see how much real connection we need in our relationship to others and to then realize how rarely we seem to be able to hold on to it.