Until Rushmore, Bill Murray was the last guy who would star in a romantic, artsy drama. After graduating from “SNL” decades ago, he went on to own the comedy scene in the ’80s and early ’90s with surefire hits like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day. But as we well know, occasionally, let’s blame a bad publicist or two, his career takes a wrong turn into Dan Aykroydville resulting in despicable clunkers like Larger Than Life and Osmosis Jones.
Fortunately, Murray, now 53, seems to grow more selective and wise with age, turning down this summer’s flop, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, a move that signals declining interest in big, easy money. Even better, he said no to old friends like Harold Ramis when they asked for his participation in a surely disastrous Ghostbusters 3 (it’s since been axed). Which brings us closer to his starring role in Sofia Coppola’s beautiful Lost in Translation, a non-glamorous look into the life of an aging actor.
Murray plays Bob Harris, a forgotten American action star, who still has enough appeal in U.S.-obsessed Japan to milk $2 million for a few whiskey commercials. The film opens with Bob arriving in Tokyo, where he’ll spend the week battling insomnia, boredom, and the surreal charicature-annoyance of excitable Japanese commercial directors.
Truly hilarious moments are sprinkled throughout, many emerging from Bob’s dire commercial shoots, where absurd acting tips are suggested by the directors, like emitting greater intensity while sitting in an armchair sipping fake whiskey.
The sophomore effort of Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), she’s taken all the critical naysaying over her last name in stride. And once Lost in Translation opens in a few more theatres or hits video, she’ll find greater recognition with mainstream-er audiences and the press alike. Viewers are offered a brave and successful attempt at filming a feeling, the selected feeling being loneliness.
Bob has been married for 25 years, and he has young children, but the film is quick to point out that his life is bordering on midlife shambles. A note left by his wife alerts that he’s missed his son’s birthday. Most of the communication between husband and wife during Bob’s trip abroad is strictly professional in nature. His companion’s main concern seems to be what color carpeting to use for Bob’s study, and their conversations more often end with an abrupt “I have to go” rather than with “I love you.”
Drifting about his hotel, Bob meets Charlotte (Ghost World’s Scarlett Johansson), a quiet girl in her 20s stricken with similar loneliness, looking at her life with confused hopelessness. She’s married to a hotshot photographer, who serves as her reason for being in Japan. There’s clearly scant connection between them on an emotional level, as she’s much smarter and deeper than he is.
Stranded at the hotel for a few days while her husband shoots a music video outside the city, she spends most of her time with Bob. One of the best attributes about Coppola’s film is its refusal to cave in to mainstream ideology. Bob and Charlotte never have sex, instead their time is spent talking and sharing thoughts with one another, conversations their spouses simply wouldn’t understand or care to discuss. Bob is much less a love interest to Charlotte then a trusting friend and a source of inspiration, assuring her that life will get better. She provides him with inspiration as well, mostly by her presence alone, the realization that people like her are out there, existing outside his wife’s superficial abyss.
The direction comes across like a long, passionate whisper into the viewer’s ear, and with such a delicate handling of the heartfelt, she gets her point across much more realistically than typical dramas where airplanes zoom in the sky as characters kiss. This is an elegant sparkler being waved around by a child during a so-so grand finale. And obviously Coppola is helped by an amazing, Oscar-worthy performance from Murray, whose previous leaps at dramatic prowess were notable supporting roles in Wes Anderson’s classics, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, neither of which match his part here. Johansson is impressive as well, as she continues to carve out a spot for herself in the next generation of top-tier actresses alongside Christina Ricci.
Solid writing and cinematic methods add to the film’s tone, and Coppola never gets too show-offy with the camera, preferring crisp wide shots to modern quick-cuts and unoriginal close-ups. Another memorable technique is the way she contrasts the loneliness that Charlotte and Bob are feeling, the frenzied neon streets of Tokyo, and the characters around them, who all come off as purposely happy, but less interesting and intelligent.
Charlotte’s husband and Bob’s wife are made out to be the kind of people who watch watered down sitcoms and love the contrived romance of Julia Roberts’ films. But if the more emotionally complex Bob and Charlotte had to choose what movie to see, it would probably be Lost in Translation.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.