Prisoner of Japan

Bill Murray opens up in Lost in Translation.

Murray and Johansson, hilariously detatched in Tokyo

Watching Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (Focus Features), I felt as if I were seeing his face for the first time. We’ve all seen his comic mask: the rumpled but unruffle-able ironist, mock-suave, holding himself in quotation marks. Murray’s comic style is based on not opening himself up emotionally: It’s the hipster-clown’s triumph over vulnerability. The problem for him as a “straight” actor is how to stay true to that side of his personality (which is his genius) and yet somehow bare his soul, as a real actor must. Murray has given serious performances, to groans in The Razor’s Edge (1984) and huzzahs in Rushmore (1998). But it seems to me that his two halves have never come together as they do here, in a way that connects that hilarious detachment with the deep and abiding sense of isolation that must have spawned it. This is the Bill Murray performance we’ve been waiting for: Saturday Night Live meets Chekhov.

Coppola’s film isn’t Chekhov, but it’s an entrancing mood piece, an improbably romantic (and funny) evocation of emotional isolation. Scarlett Johansson (she was Thora Birch’s blasé sidekick in Ghost World [2001]) plays the director’s alter ego, Charlotte, a 25-year-old ex-philosophy major visiting Japan with her showbiz photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a jabbering whirlwind who barely makes eye contact. In their cool, ultramodern Tokyo hotel, which feels like a space station, Charlotte wanders the corridors or sits on the windowsill of her room, hugging her bare knees and staring at the city from afar. She can’t sleep at night: Her loneliness is too oppressive. So she heads for the panoramic sky bar, with its redheaded Caucasian singer who melodramatically draws out the finale of “Scarborough Fair”: “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and THYYYMMME … “

It’s there that she encounters Bob Harris (Murray), a fading American movie star making $2 million for a series of commercials for a Japanese whiskey, Suntory. Earlier in the film, Bob arrives depressed and jet-lagged into a neon-swamped Tokyo and stares out of his limo at his image on a building-sized Suntory ad. He blinks and shakes his head as if to pull his mind back into his body: The sense of being outside himself is total. Unable to sleep (the fax machine hums with businesslike missives from his wife, in the midst of renovating their house), Bob stations himself in the bar and drinks to detach himself even more conclusively.

Far removed from the city, the culture, and the language, Bob and Charlotte feel their lack of connection more fiercely than they do on their home turf: They’re in solitary confinement in their own heads. Slowly (very slowly, actually; the film has its longueurs), the middle-aged man with no center and the young woman who doesn’t know who she’s supposed to be recognize their pain in each other’s eyes and develop a joshing intimacy. I won’t say if the relationship is physically consummated. But the richness of the movie, I think, is in the way that question is handled—in how they struggle to honor the bridge they’ve built between them while articulating nothing. The meaning is buried in the inconsequential jokes, the eye (and foot) contact, and in the way that Coppola frames them, together and apart.

She does have quite an eye. The director’s Tokyo (and that of her cinematographer, Lance Accord) is all pockets of glowing neon light in the darkness. The movie has few tight close-ups: It’s all about the characters’ uncertain relationship to the space. Only the movie’s first shot is a head-scratcher: a rear view of Johansson on a hotel bed, with her butt crack visible through sheer pink panties as she stares through the window at the high-rises of Tokyo. The meaning of this image is less transparent than Johansson’s attire, but my guess is that Coppola wants us to see the whole film as the vaguely erotic dream of an alienated young woman. She wants to make this woman’s detachment from this culture, and from her own body, hypnotically sexy, and to put the longing for human connection into your bloodstream from the first frame. But I was mostly thinking about her butt crack.

Coppola might have lost us without Murray’s incessant and hilarious riffing—with the Japanese, who bewilder him, and with Charlotte, whom he understands almost too well. The scenes in which Bob shoots his Suntory commercials for his histrionic Japanese director—dutifully, at the man’s vague suggestion, impersonating each member of the Rat Pack in turn, including Joey Bishop—are comedy classics on par with his best work on Saturday Night Live. And he achieves a blissfully funny rapport with a homuncular little woman—a sort of Japanese Linda Hunt, with stuck-out ears—who insists on talking to him in Japanese in a hospital waiting room. When Charlotte emerges from the doctor’s office, Murray is holding a stuffed-animal owl; and for an instant I wondered if, as in the great Japanese anime Spirited Away (2002), the old woman had suddenly metamorphosed into a precious gift for the young girl.

Almost everything to do with Bob and Charlotte is marvelous—and Johansson holds the camera nearly as well as Murray, her face so baby-smooth yet uncannily self-possessed. But the other characters are ciphers. Ribisi’s John hardly registers, and I’m not sure how we’re supposed to take Charlotte’s utter lack of interest in her husband’s work. (If I were Coppola’s husband, the director Spike Jonze, I’d be worried.) And Coppola is too smug in her condescension toward the Tara Reid-like starlet (Anna Faris) who fawns all over John. There’s something narcissistic and entitled about her two protagonists that isn’t a great advertisement for Americans Abroad. Charlotte asks Bob why the Japanese mix up their l’s and r’s and he says, “for yucks”—which is very funny in a Bill Murray-esque way. But they’re our yucks, at their expense. It’s bad enough to make fun of Japanese for their English in English-speaking countries. But in Japan? The sense of otherness and of cultural superiority merges uncomfortably.

Lost in Translation would cut even deeper if Coppola had found a way to dramatize how Bob’s and Charlotte’s sense of superiority contributes to their loneliness, making them more alienated than they’d otherwise be. But Coppola is young and finding her voice. Her own alienation is so gorgeous and so transfixing, you can’t help forgiving her for wanting to wallow in it for a time.