Lost in Translation is as small as any Francis Ford Coppola production is vast -- he paints while she sketches. Countering her auspicious 1999 debut effort, The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola works this time not with an adaptation of a novel but a story gleaned from her travels to Japan in sketching a friendship that softly skirts around the edges of a love affair. Along the way, the younger Coppola has produced my favorite film of this year.
Rarely does a director get so much out of so little: the friendship between a fading movie star (Bill Murray) and the young wife (Scarlett Johansson) of a hip L.A. photographer (Giovanni Ribisi). (Make any parallels to Coppola and Jonze you like.) Murray as Bob and Johansson as Charlotte are not just lost in translation as they wade through the culture shock of Tokyo, but also lost in transition. They're catching each other coming and going; Bob's plainly stuck in a midlife crisis and Charlotte's plainly stuck in a marriage and future for which she seems ill-prepared.
Both are suffering from insomnia, their only initial link -- not a big deal on the surface. What is a big deal is the way Coppola manages to connect her characters both to each other and to their surroundings. Just as in life, Bob and Charlotte are filled with confusion and wonderment about things they don't truly understand. Sometimes, they need each other to work it out, other times they're going to ultimately have to figure things out for themselves.
To wonder if they will eventually wind up in bed together is to miss the point of the movie, and Coppola executes a delicate balancing act of creating and avoiding this question all at once. She better than other directors understands the ambiguities that mark male-female relationships, May-December or otherwise, and that sexual attraction can come on more than a few levels.
Coppola has said that her casting of Murray was crucial to the success of the film, and she responds with another miracle high-wire act: allowing Murray to use his bag of tricks by goofing on them and placing them in a contemporary context. (Think Rushmore with even more melancholy.) Bob is in Tokyo working on an endorsement campaign for a Japanese whiskey, and neither he nor Charlotte (whose husband is constantly on assignment and leaving her alone) can sleep. So they wind up hanging out together, whether at the bar or sampling the nightlife with some of Charlotte's Japanese friends.
In perhaps the film's most powerful moment, they wind up in a private karaoke bar trading hammed-up versions of classic New Wave: Bob shouting out "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Charlotte flirting up "Brass in Pocket." It's a lounge-lizard riff Murray's been doing since Saturday Night Live. But then Charlotte kicks the mic back over for his version of Roxy Music's "More Than This" -- "It was fun for a while/ There was no way of knowing/ Like dream in the night/ Who can say where we're going" -- and Murray plays it straight and gentle, his fondness for Charlotte all too real.
Later, they're in bed together, fully clothed and barely facing each other as they both ponder their plight. When Charlotte asks if marriage gets any easier, Bob, the father of two, says it's quite the opposite and reveals the dark secret: "The day your first child is born is the scariest day of your life. Your life as you know it is changed forever." Charlotte nods: "Nobody ever tells you that."
Johansson, a curious beauty with her deadpan expression, puffy lips and upturned nose, hangs with Murray perfectly and becomes the one to watch as she samples Japanese culture outside their hotel. When she watches a wedding march float by her on the way to a Buddhist temple, her face looks like it's wondering if they know what they're getting into; she sure didn't.
That Sofia Coppola manages to avoid just about every other storytelling temptation is a testament to the subtlety of her growing craft as a filmmaker. Her use of incredibly hip alternative music should be emulated by every other young (and older) director, creating moods instead of destroying them; her camera is one filled with curiosity and care; and her own script is a stripped-down affair that only serves to set up moods instead of interrupt them.
That doesn't sound like someone riffing off her more famous father or hipper husband. Sofia Coppola's film might be Lost in Translation, but she is surely finding her own language.