It's always dangerous to assume that a movie released in the early fall is one of the year's best. But it's hard to imagine a film coming along in the next few months that will displace Lost in Translation from that position. In what is only her second film, writer and director Sofia Coppola has made a tasteful, rhapsodic movie about identity and love that is steeped in sincerity. It's also hilarious.
To say too much about the film's story would do it a disservice. Part of the movie's charm is the gentle way in which it surprises the viewer. It's enough simply to explain the film's premise: Bill Murray is a famous middle-aged actor named Bob Harris who is in Tokyo filming a whiskey commercial for an absurd amount of money. Sleep-deprived and alienated, he walks through Japan as though he's in Wonderland. Scarlett Johansson is a young woman named only Charlotte, who is in Tokyo with her photographer husband, (the hilariously vacant Giovanni Ribisi). Ostensibly on a voyage to find herself, Charlotte seems to spend most of her day looking out her hotel window, wondering how such an ordinary-looking city can seem so wondrous at night. She's also not sleeping, probably because there's very little difference between being awake and dreaming in her life. Staying in the same hotel, these two lost Americans encounter each other, and slowly set out to explore Tokyo and themselves.
At the heart of Lost in Translation are the performances by Murray and Johansson. The chemistry between the two is astounding, and Johansson, who has much less experience than Murray, takes full advantage of it. We haven't had an actress grow up onscreen like this since Jodie Foster appeared in Taxi Driver. When Bob and Charlotte finally meet for a conversation in a bar, it's clear that a major actress has arrived. It's not hard to look at Johansson's beautiful awkwardness and formidable intelligence and think of names like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn. She has the talent to craft a character, and the spine to support an entire film.
Johansson's performance also gives Bill Murray something to work with, and the result is the best leading performance of his career. With his haggard face and humdrum demeanor, Murray is immediately lovable. In his first scene, he wakes up in a limo and looks out the window, only to be greeted by an enormous billboard of himself. The shock and disbelief that crosses his face is enough to make us care deeply about Bob. This is no "behind the scenes" movie about being a celebrity. Murray has made Bob into an example of every middle-aged man who is questioning his value in the world.
Coppola lavishes Lost in Translation with a dreamy pacing that gives the viewer ample time to soak up cinematographer Lance Acord's gorgeous visions of Tokyo. It also affords Murray the room in which to measure out his jokes and physical comedy with a precision that calls to mind Charlie Chaplin in City Lights. There's a point where jokes become sad without losing their humor, and Coppola lets her cameras run so that Murray can find it.
But as funny, sad and Japanese as Lost in Translation is, it's most likely to strike viewers as a timeless romantic film. Several of the moments between Bob and Charlotte are so fraught with significance that, once witnessed, they become impossible to forget. Sitting together in a hallway outside of a karaoke lounge, the two touch, and Charlotte allows her head to fall onto Bob's shoulder. The mood is intense, but the actors transform it into something sublime. Instead of finding each other then and there (which is what would happen in a lesser movie), the two simply sit. They each have themselves to find first.