As the film Lost In Translation opens, we find Bill Murray in the back of a cab being driven from the airport to his Tokyo hotel. Murray gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Bob Hams, a movie star whose best years are behind him. He is in Tokyo for photo shoots for ads for the whiskey he is pitching for the Japanese market. He the stranger in a strange land, disconnected from everything around him. He has a comfortable lifestyle, married with kids. However, on this trip, his wife is reduced to a disembodied voice and an incoming fax at 4:00 in the morning. (4:20 to be exact…)
Bob sticks out like a sore thumb in Japan, nearly a foot taller than the other men riding an elevator in one scene. The scene is not played for laughs but instead it shows us how strange this must be for him.
A lot of Murray’s acting is simply reacting. The scenes in which he is adapting to his new hotel surroundings are priceless… the unfamiliar shower, the complimentary razor.
Charlotte, (Scarlett Johansson) is in town with her husband, (played by Giovanni Ribisi) a famous celebrity photographer. She has a degree in philosophy, but she can’t get any attention from him. He is too wrapped up in his work and his lifestyle. He is so disconnected he can’t even see that she is upset. He leaves her to herself in their hotel room day after day until she is literally bored to tears. She is a strong independent woman, yet going off and exploring Tokyo on her own is still a bit overwhelming for her, and not as fun as if she had someone to share it with.
Lying awake in bed, and flipping through cable channels gets old fast for both Bob and Charlotte and they both end up in the hotel bar, a surreal loungy dark bar where American music is played and sung by lounge musicians for Japanese businessmen. It seems they are both happy to find a kindred spirit in each other. It’s just nice to find someone else who speaks English and two lonely people find each other.
Having a drink at the bar together, they talk. The dialogue is careful at first, the way you might be when you first meet someone, including awkward pauses and quiet moments but eventually they develop a nice chemistry. The dialogue rings true, it’s not cliché-ridden or set-up lines delivered for punch lines for laughs. These are two real people, and each of them has their own situations they have to deal with. (I’d be curious to know how much of Murray’s lines were written and how much is his own ad-libbing. It feels real.) He comes across as a most real person. He’s Bob Harris, a celebrity yes, but underneath it all, he’s still a man, and at this time, a lonely man. Both Bob and Charlotte are disconnected from the world they know, and their failed attempts to make things right, just gives them both impetus to pursue this interesting new friendship with each other. They decide to go out and explore the city a little and then go to a house party of a friend of Charlotte’s.
There is a sweet scene when Charlotte takes a break from the party festivities and sits in the hallway to smoke a cigarette. A few moments later, Murray walks in sits down with her, takes the cigarette, takes one drag off it, gives it back to her. She then lays her head on his shoulder and he puts his hand on her hand. Not a word spoken between them yet this simple scene says so much. In many films, this would be the point where Bob and Charlotte would begin a sexual relationship, but not here. The feelings are there, but both are tied down to others, and choose not to take it to that level.
This film is full of nice quiet scenes where Bob and Charlotte simply spend time together talking. Just as you might expect from Murray himself, Bob is a clever well-rounded guy and his conversations with Charlotte show us what he really thinks about his life and his family and what he’s going through. Charlotte opens up as well, and asks questions like “Does it get any easier?” They open up to each other through conversation and they develop a friendship that helps them make it through the time they are spending in a place foreign to both of them.
Sofia Coppola wrote and directed this film. It is her second film following 2000’s Virgin Suicides. She has also directed a few music videos and has probably picked up a few pointers from her husband, award winning film and music video director Spike Jonze. She chooses different camera lenses for different feelings; a wide-angle lens for shots of the city, so we too can be overwhelmed by the hugeness of it all. A hand-held camera follows Murray and Johansson through the streets as they explore Tokyo together.
She also uses music to hold a mood as she segues from one scene to the next. From the karaoke scenes to the moody sounds of bands like Air and Jesus And Mary Chain on the soundtrack, music is a big part of this film.
Murray is both charismatic and yet vulnerable as Bob Harris. He conducts himself as a gentleman, and is kind and endearing. Johansson is wonderful as Charlotte just reaching out for someone to talk to. This is one of the best and most thoughtful films in recent memory.
The film ends as it began, with Bob in a taxi leaving the city for the airport and eventually back to his wife and family. There are lots of disconnected people in the world, for various reasons. Sometimes a friend to talk to, or do things with is all you need to lift your spirits.