Every so often, everyone has that fleeting, pensive moment of loneliness — riding up to work on the elevator, lying in bed in the early morning when sleep won’t come, dinner at a table for one.
Half of Lost in Translation takes place in that instant, and the other half in what shakes you from that reverie — something you can only hope is as wonderful as the initial smile that sparks the tender friendship between its characters, Bob and Charlotte.
For Bob Harris (Bill Murray), that split second of loneliness is a daylong concern. A has-been American action movie star, he’s on a weeklong trip to Tokyo to shill Japanese whiskey. The money is lucrative, but the work cakes him in makeup and dresses him in silly tuxedos.
Bob stays quiet about his dissatisfaction in life, marital and otherwise. As he says later, “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less things upset you.” Perhaps because he knows the language barrier won’t get him fired, he uses sarcasm as his only defense against the ridiculous commercials.
Staying in the same hotel is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the young wife of an in-demand photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) whom he leaves to her own touristy devices while he works. She tries ikebana and visiting temples with chanting monks, but “feels nothing.” Upset, she calls a friend back home and gets what amounts to a brush-off.
She and Bob are married people, but very much alone. And when their paths finally cross, Sofia Coppola’s film crackles with the energy of their connection. Each invigorates the other, and their adventures in the hurry-and-flurry Tokyo nightlife are glittery, dreamlike, meditative and absolutely beautiful.
Convention would require Bob and Charlotte to have an affair. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. Part of Lost in Translation‘s radiance is that it gives us enough to know and feel for these characters but not bog us down with details that would otherwise seem everyday.
We admire the moments of introspection we get to share with them, thanks to the beauty of Coppola’s camera and two superb performances. As they lie awake together late at night, Bob talking about his children and brushing her bare foot with his hand, is particularly sublime. The whole film taps into the inexplicable rush people get from atypical late-night outings.
The Academy snubbed Murray already with Rushmore, and if they blow him off again, they should pack it up and yield to the Hollywood Foreign Press. Yes, there is the physical comedy we come to expect (an overly aggressive escort and an elliptical machine from hell both vex Bob) and the wiseacre one-liners. But Murray’s transformation from a sad, spiritless sack of flesh into a man refreshed by unexpected friendship is stunning. Whether it’s making an empty telephone call home to his wife or singing karaoke a la Saturday Night Live, Murray is as brilliant as he’s ever been.
And Johansson’s voice is as lovely as that of any actress working today — husky, sexy, earnest, honest. She makes Charlotte’s fear at living a life unfulfilled a scarily realistic one.
The film concludes ambiguously, but perfectly, Coppola revealing all that we really need to know — Bob’s final words to Charlotte will be the weapon each of them uses to combat that next, inevitable lonely moment. This is one of the best films of the year.