'Lost in Translation': Bonds Without Borders

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2003

Under its title, "Lost in Translation" begins by displaying an image that is itself lost in translation: a beautiful woman's rear end in repose, lightly sheathed in gossamer knickers.

Hoo boy, you think (if you're emotionally about 17), is that ever in the Esperanto of sexual possibility.

But that very image is misunderstood. Scarlett Johansson's lyrical caboose decodes not as sex, but as something related yet utterly distinct: intimacy. For if you see a woman in her skivvies, that doesn't always mean sex is about to happen. (If you're married, it means sex is probably not about to happen.) But it does signify that between the two of you there's a feeling of trust, of togetherness, of wholeness against a world full of idiots and morons and schemers. And that's exactly the subject of "Lost in Translation."

Directed with grace and dexterity (but no great need to be done in a hurry) by Sofia Coppola, it's the story of an unlikely alliance between an aging movie star and the young wife of a photographer when the two find themselves abandoned in a Tokyo hotel for a few days, while other people all around them do seemingly necessary and important things. Although the basis of their confederation is their mutual conviction that these necessary and important things are pretty much bull-flop.

Bill Murray, in his most complete performance since "Groundhog Day," plays Bob Harris, the star, a lion in . . . if not winter, possibly edging toward autumn. Bob's fatigue shows in his tone, his body language. Murray reminds me of Jerry Lewis's great performance in Martin Scorsese's "King of Comedy," in that it seems as if gravity has singled him out for special punishment, pulling his flesh down, closer and closer to the earth. His Bob is in Japan to shoot a sublimely ridiculous whiskey commercial for a sublimely ridiculous fee. (It's a poorly kept secret that many stars, like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, have shown the yen for easy yen.) Two million bucks to look sophisticated and say, "Suntory Whiskey -- it's smooth and relaxing," or something like that. Bob is a pro and he soldiers on, even if dealing in Japan with the Japanese is a bafflement wrapped inside an enigma inserted into a sushi maki.

In the same hotel -- the Park Hyatt Tokyo -- Coppola gets a great sense of place from this noplace, 211 caverns and halls and streamlined Japanese rooms without character or tone -- stays Charlotte, with the loose, dull face of the utterly disengaged. Charlotte's husband, John, who photographs rock musicians, is played at full-tilt narcissistic abandon by Giovanni Ribisi. In fact, all of Coppola's pocket portraits of entertainment figures -- agents, publicists, photographers and particularly a grotesque young American actress -- are dead-on and hilarious. She's got the satirist's gift for killing swiftly without a lot of blood and screaming.

But Charlotte isn't hilarious, and it's another vivid example of Coppola's gift how quickly the young director evokes the dynamic of a marriage gone stale. Charlotte is a smart, beautiful Yalie, and she was obviously taken with John's glamour. But he's the kind of person who, in getting it, doesn't get it. He's too career-obsessed to notice how trivial his career is. And he has begun to dislike the fact that she sees through his shallowness and the dreariness of his friends, and that she can't focus on his passionate discussions of his interpretations of the looks of various artists he photographs. It's not stated, but clearly the issue in play is: Can this marriage be saved?

Probably not. So it is that John disappears for a bit, and Charlotte and Bob meet in the hotel's swanky bar and immediately begin to hit it off in subtle, secret ways. Clearly, they are agreed on the fatuousness of much of the world and the infantility of the rest of it. And they both hate someone passionately: themselves.

What unspools is essentially two separate movies, one very funny in a Bill Murray kind of way, the other very poignant in a Sofia Coppola kind of way. The technical difficulty is that each movie requires a different Bill Murray and, try as I might, I can come up with no coherent theory of Bob Harris's psychology.

One movie chronicles the adventures of an American movie star with a career in deep hemorrhage trying to get through a financially necessary ordeal in Japan. Murray certainly doesn't overdo it, but with that prehensile face, and its weird ability to project not just broad-stroke attitudes like "irony" but substates like "58 percent irony/40 percent fatigue/2 percent responsibility," he's very funny. Coppola keeps throwing up things for him to react to: a masseuse who may be a prostitute lying on her back on the floor riding an imaginary bicycle and screaming incomprehensibly in Japanese while he just sits there, that magnificent instrument of a face generating various shades of sub- and sub-substate; or his inability to stay focused during a commercial shoot that is utterly chaotic, because his translator speaks worse English than he speaks Japanese -- and he speaks no Japanese.

The other movie is about a lonely, sad older man, who seems as completely un-movie-star as you could imagine (he seems more like a CEO), who meets an equally lonely, sad younger woman in a hotel, and finds her magically simpatico. You know the sensation: It's not love, but it's some immediate awareness that the two of you may have been separated at birth, your minds operate alike, your synapses fire in the same pattern, you recognize the same enemies (many) and the same allies (few). It's you and she against the world, and boy, is it ever fun.

Sex, somehow, doesn't come into it. Sex, somehow, would ruin it. You can get sex anywhere. (And Bob does.) From this one, you want that precious process that E.M. Forster so wisely described as "only connect." So Bob and Charlotte connect and proceed through a number of adventures in Japan, and discover that their equal bafflement at all things Japanese is somehow a part of their bond.

That's really the magic of the movie, which is, in the end, wonderfully nice. It gets at something exquisitely human, so human that even movie stars feel it.

Lost in Translation (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and sexual suggestiveness.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company