Lost in Tokyo
His American deadpan too limited in range for serious drama -- remember that miscasting as restless spirit Larry Darrel in The Razor's Edge? -- Bill Murray's bemused, self-deprecating mug is perfect as the face of a Hollywood star metaphorically lost in Japan. Just arrived in that country in director/writer/co-producer Sofia Coppola's aptly titled Lost in Translation, he is surrounded by worshipful greeters, shepherded to a luxury high-rise hotel to await the (hilarious) filming of a whiskey advertisement, offered fantasy women and other perks. He watches television dubbed into Japanese, cannot sleep at night and terribly misses his family but forgets his son's birthday and vaguely senses that midlife crisis and twenty-five years' -- "long ones" -- familiarity have staled his marriage.
Too conveniently matching the funnyman's wry shy Midwesterner-residing-in-LA Bob Harris, is Scarlett Johansson's wry shy New Yorker-residing-in-LA Charlotte. Theoretically accompanying a self- and work-absorbed husband of two years (Giovanni Ribisi) on a photo shoot in Tokyo, she is abandoned to her own devices. Vaguely sensing unhappiness and a crisis, she cannot sleep at night.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two lonely insomniacs, both staying at the Park Hyatt, will meet, and maybe more. The only questions involve when and how, and then where from there?
Their inevitable, and evolving, relationship is believable and adult -- itself a rarity nowadays -- and it is a pleasure to behold a story that involves fulfillment, not in quick sex, but in restraint and even renunciation for a change. They do not hop groping and unclothed into bed. A nonsensical "R (for some sexual content)" notwithstanding, the only flesh is on Murray's quite unprovocative torso (and a briefer bar dancer). Opening seconds of Johansson's stretch-pantied rear end is unnecessary, as is Murray's off-camera romp with the singer from Sausalito--music group, not place--the latter intended to point up his sacrifice in Charlotte's case.
Indeed, that short jazz-singer tryst, Charlotte's disconnected run to Kyoto, and many minutes of screen time in which the two companions supposedly hang out with her inexplicably acquired Japanese "friends," all need to be edited out. Ditto the improbable very end, after Bill boards an airport limousine; if their lobby "you stole my coat" parting isn't right or enough for a conclusion, then redo it. Do it once, economize, cut, edit.
Although Murray's public Mark Twain reading of several years ago was surprisingly effective, he's not a performer who usually attracts me. Here, however, the part of Bob seems made for the actor's laid-back understatement. With her youth and bewilderment, Johansson complements the comic well, and if it were just these two, if the film had confidence in its stars and sharper editing, this portrayal of friendship, disinterested acceptance and responsibility, could have been movingly successful.
Unfortunately, women other than the reticent heroine come across as silly or predatory or both, and Americans invariably appear loudly crude. Incongruously billed as "a valentine . . . to the city of Tokyo," the film images that megalopolis as repellent, mindless, neon and noisy, its few English speakers laughably unintelligible out of old racist stereotypes. Worse, the nation and its culture are handled with jarring provincial condescension and contempt. All in frequent close-up, a common failing of today. Johansson's skin is indeed youthfully pretty, Murray's notoriously not, but does so much of daily experience really occur at cross-eyed closeness, with no distance or background?
Two fine performances, in short, and a promising throwback comedy idea. A couple of very funny bits, though not nearly so numerous and consistent as some viewers' cackles would have indicated. Because it lacks focus as well as confidence in its story and stars, Lost in Translation squanders a good opportunity.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R' for some sexual content.)