Lost in Translation

2006-03-30 12:17

Sofia Coppola's magnificent and delicate "Lost in Translation" is a love story but not a romance, a picture that fits into no identifiable genre because there's no category fluid enough to properly cradle it. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a Hollywood action-movie star who's been flown to Tokyo to make a whiskey commercial, giving him a respite from his kid and his wife of 25 years, with whom he's settled into either a wobbly holding pattern or a businesslike truce that prevents them from killing each other -- it's hard to say which. Scarlett Johansson is a quiet, bookish young woman named Charlotte, who has come to the same city with her hotshot photographer husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi). She clearly cares for him, and yet the two float in parallel spaces that never intersect. They're like strangers who wake up in a rumpled bed together only to realize they've been married for two years.

Charlotte and Bob meet in the bar of the Tokyo Park Hyatt. The two of them have drifted there after spending sleepless hours' worth of channel clicking in their respective rooms, like zombies who can no longer bear the boredom of being undead and need to at least go through the motions of feeling alive.

And after that meeting, everything and nothing happens in "Lost in Translation": The picture's muted intensity isn't just a vague mood -- it's a subtle but very specific type of narrative drive. Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) is a stealth dramatist: Instead of unfolding in precise pleats, her movies unfurl like bolts of silk. There are no handy place markers between scenes to help us tick off how many minutes are likely to pass between this or that point of conflict and the denouement. Revelations don't click into position; they swoop down, seemingly from nowhere, and settle in quietly, like a bird coming to roost.

To some people, this is a maddeningly diffuse type of filmmaking, but I'd argue that Coppola's precision is simply the sort that's measured in sine waves, not milliseconds. "Lost in Translation" is Coppola's second movie, and it marks her as one of our most gifted filmmakers (of either gender). Her first picture, the elegiac and gorgeously made "The Virgin Suicides," was cautiously praised by some critics, but I remember encountering, in conversation at least, plenty of people who took glee in cutting it down, basing their arguments not on the specifics of the movie itself but on their convenient perception that Coppola was able to make movies only because she has a famous dad, Francis Ford Coppola. Or, more preposterous yet, many refused to acknowledge that she could be a good filmmaker since she had given such a bad performance in "Godfather III."

Strangely enough, or perhaps not so, no one has accused Sofia's husband, Spike Jonze (the director of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"), of riding on the Coppola coattails, even though, as Lynn Hirschberg pointed out in a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Sofia, Jonze's movies have also benefited from the Coppola family support network. Jonze is not without talent: He's an occasionally entertaining filmmaker. But it's frustrating that he's received so many more accolades than his wife, who is well on her way to becoming a great one.

"Lost in Translation" is a movie about dislocation and the blessed salve of connection. Both Bob and Charlotte are strangers in a strange land, the strange land not being Japan, but their own skins. The very surface of "Lost in Translation" -- it was shot, beautifully, by relative newcomer Lance Acord -- seems alive with nerve endings, from the lonely waltzing molecules of the hotel bar to Tokyo's blaze of blinking neon, which seems both welcoming and reserved. (New Yorkers will probably be struck by how much parts of Tokyo resemble Times Square; it's as if New York has a mirror complement on the other side of the world.) A strong sense of place is a necessity in a movie about dislocation: The city knows for sure who it is; it's the people moving through it who are riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

Next page | "She frames a movie around her actors instead of around her own vision"

Sofia Coppola's stealthy romance about two Americans stranded in Tokyo is a work of marvelous delicacy -- and offers the performance of Bill Murray's career.

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