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Lost in Translation

(2003) *** 1/2 R
102 min. Focus Features. Director: Sofia Coppola. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Akiko Takeshita.

Barking up the right tree, our favorite hangdog is back. The one-of-a-kind Bill Murray, the charm-oozing, heavy-lidded king of bemused deadpan, seems only to improve with age. Under the preternaturally assured supervision of sophomore director Sofia Coppola, Murray and co-star Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World) prove that still waters run deep.

Coppola, who announced a formidable talent with The Virgin Suicides, proves she's one to watch with this patiently observed study in disorientation, culture shock, and intimate human relations. Murray plays Bob Harris, an aging film star in Tokyo to shill Santory whiskey. Jet-lagged and gobsmacked by the absurdity of his own humiliating objectification in the neon heart of an inscrutable culture, Bob regards Tokyo as a colorful Wonderland of disorienting tricksters and aggressive queens. Johansson's Charlotte finds herself in the same boat, temporarily rudderless and with time on her hands. In Tokyo to accompany her cameraman husband (Giovanni Ribisi), who ditches her regularly for work and play, Charlotte wanders the monolithic hotel and eventually the country in an insomniac haze. The intersection of these kindred spirits forms the slender but pregnant story.

Bob, too, has a spouse: a wife of 25 years who faxes bookshelf blueprints and mails carpet samples, all of which spirit their way into his antiseptic hotel room like messages from another galaxy. In turns, Bob tangles with commercial directors, photographers, and TV hosts who treat him like meat; a high-strung, high-class hooker; and a runaway exercise machine. At the end of each day, he finds whiskey-soaked repose in the hotel bar. Charlotte finds herself there, too, perhaps relieved to dodge her capricious husband and certainly pleased to ditch his movie star acquaintance (hilariously etched by Anna Faris).

A series of empathetic eye contacts draws Bob and Charlotte together, initiating a tentative platonic friendship which forecasts taboo romantic possibility. Talking at length and silently comiserating, walking aimlessly or indulging a nightlife of club parties and karaoke, the pair's courtship is slow enough to be wholly credible and equally tantalizing. Charlotte asks shrewd questions on behalf of both of them; taking the invitation, Bob offers the advice his years have earned him ("The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.") and gets to hear himself with new ears. Remarkably, Coppola and her stars call out spontaneous emotional honesty amidst the humorously impassive observation of a Tokyo which at first seems to dwarf them; feeling remote and misunderstood ironically brings the two together.

The view of Japan from the outside allows exotic wonder and romantic bonding. Coppola's loose, limber style captures the nocturnal streets as a fragmented rainbow of empty messages, starkly contrasting nearby sites both ancient and sacred. Her strict subjectivity can be off-putting, in part because she firmly refuses to penetrate the Japanese point of view, but perhaps more so because we must grudgingly recognize our own real-world unwillingness--as entitled Americans abroad--to make a true, concerted effort to do so. Even more unsettling is Coppola's self-portraiture: her script reimagines her own jet-lagged stay in the same hotel, with Ribisi pitilessly representing Coppola's lookalike husband (filmmaker Spike Jonze) as a feckless head case.

Sensitive, offbeat, and funny, Lost in Translation is one of the year's best, but even if it weren't, national treasure Bill Murray let loose with a karaoke machine justifies the price of admission.

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