Lost in Translation

A warm, low-level hum
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At the start of Lost in Translation, Bill Murray, playing an over-the-hill Hollywood star, wakes up in a cab carrying him through Tokyo at night. He peers blearily at the walls of neon, wondering where the hell he is, then spots his own giant likeness gazing moodily off a billboard ad.

He rubs his eyes, bewildered. It's as if he hasn't actually taken a plane to get here, but simply found himself teleported direct from Beverly Hills. Sofia Coppola's second film is a study of displacement and insomnia, perhaps the definitive jet-lag movie; it deserves to become a standard feature on long-haul flights. The protagonists are two confused Americans staying in a luxurious Tokyo hotel. Bob Harris (Murray) is a movie star visiting to shoot a lucrative and time-wasting ad for Suntory whiskey. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is accompanying her hipster husband (Giovanni Ribisi), in town to photograph a rock band. Bored and lonely, Charlotte is worried about her marriage, her vocation - not yet either a writer or a photographer, she realises she may yet become neither - and her spirituality, which she tries to jump-start by visiting Buddhist temples and listening to self-help tapes.

Bob and Charlotte come to form an attachment that's conspiratorial, fascinatedly romantic rather than sexual, and with a certain parent-child dynamic. Bob, more than old enough to be her father, misses his kids, if perhaps not their mother, who communicates with terse faxes and FedExed swatches of sample fabric. Both Bob and Charlotte are lost souls, but she is only just finding her way while he seems to have lost his irrevocably.

Murray is perfect casting: his sagging features, barely cracking as he tosses off sardonic one-liners, signal an actor who himself has had to live down too many sub-par comedies. Yet Murray is a poster-boy for career redemption, suggesting that even for Bob anything is possible. Rediscovered as a superb comic actor in Groundhog Day, his pained graveness put to fine use in Ed Wood and Rushmore, Murray tellingly carries around the freight of his own strange career.

Here he is on fine form being the laconic joker, sitting in dazed silence through a manic chat show, barely rousing himself to oblige an eager photographer, or fending off the advances of a hotel prostitute. But what he does with the emotional volume turned to a warm low-level hum - the film's own characteristic register - is something else again. When Bob confides in Charlotte about parenthood's horrors and joys, Murray captures a tone that holds regret, delight and hard-won honesty in perfect suspension: it takes a really mature, wise actor to give such textured depth to a speech of ostensibly mundane sentiment.

Johansson, meanwhile, plays Charlotte as an introverted sensualist as well as an intellectual: we can believe that Charlotte is a Yale philosophy graduate, despite that corny self-help tape. Johansson's features mark Charlotte as a sly ironist and as an acute registering consciousness: the attentive eyes, the pointy nose of a feral creature alert to the scent of everything around her. Johansson offers a subtle repertoire of significant fleeting looks: her glances at Murray during a karaoke session so perfectly register amusement and the stirrings of love that you see why Coppola didn't need to bulk out the film with dialogue.

Coppola's debut The Virgin Suicides was so richly infused with retro style that you almost forgot it had subject-matter. Here, Coppola and photographer Lance Acord go for more realist, transparent atmospherics, but in any case the film is rich in theme. It's about a spring-autumn romance blossoming under strange artificial conditions. Unsentimentally chaste, the most romantically charged gestures are her head on his shoulder, his squeezing her foot. It's also about the contemporary luxury disease of travel and its emotionally debilitating effects. But Lost in Translation is less persuasive as a film about Japan. There is little here that we haven't already seen puzzled over in cultural-tourism articles: the ads featuring overpaid Western stars, the rattle of pachinko parlours and blare of videogame arcades, the fastidious handing-out of business cards.

The film could be misread as a cheap shot at Japan, when it is much more about Americans' incomprehension and inability to see what's around them. While Charlotte explores Tokyo, merging into the subway crowd, Bob mooches around the hotel, sulking over the same phenomena he could be depressed by in Chicago or Seattle: a bad lounge band, an unhinged exercise machine. The cruellest jokes are at the expense of Americans, notably Anna Faris's exhausting Hollywood ingenue. When Murray's Harris fires jokes at the baffled Japanese, we become uncomfortably aware of his sour streak of Bob Hope-like obnoxiousness.

Lost in Translation is moving as a hip cosmopolitan weepie, entertaining as a farce of cultural misunderstanding. But what makes it truly distinctive is Coppola's patience, her interest in mood over narrative. Few American directors these days show such an interest in dead time, in passing impressions: light reflected on bathwater, the glow of city lights outside a hotel window, the matching pink of paper flowers and Johansson's knickers.

By Hollywood standards, little happens: the couple sing karaoke, Johansson wears a pink wig, a digital dinosaur strolls across the front of a building. Lost in Translation is slender, a sliver of a story and a familiar one at that, but what makes it special is its wholehearted commitment to the minor key.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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