Lost in Translation

Meandering comedy-drama about two lonely Americans stuck in a Tokyo hotel, with nobody to talk to but each other. Bill Murray plays a fading Hollywood star who's been brought to Japan to film a Suntory Whiskey commercial for a couple million dollars. Scarlett Johansson plays the young wife of a hotshot photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who's in town to shoot some Japanese rock bands. Despite the thirty odd years that separate them, the two form a friendship, then a kinship, then something dangerously approaching romance, during their brief week together in an often comically, sometimes depressingly alien Japan.

I'm not convinced Lost in Translation really knows what it wants to be. The first few minutes provide some frequently hilarious culture shock scenes, with a baffled Murray trying to make sense of those wacky Japanese. The story bogs down during an extended documentary-style interlude of a long night our heroes spend partying with some local hipsters, and the blossoming affection between Murray and Johansson is frankly a little creepy.

Also, something I couldn't get away from while watching the film was the nature of Murray's character's fame. Apparently he is big enough to warrant a $2 million salary for a simple whiskey commercial, which is not unheard of in Japan, but for only top American stars like Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, et al - actors who wouldn't dream of selling out in the States, yet have no problem shilling to the Asian market. This suggests that Murray's character is a big name. Yet in other scenes, it's hinted that his career is washed up. Which would certainly not engender a lucrative commercial deal in cash-strapped Japan. (I read once that his character was based on Tom Skerritt.)

In any case, it's strange that his notoriety is not even acknowledged as part of Johansson's interest in him. It's nice to think that she simply sees him as a person, but for a guy whose face is already on billboards throughout Tokyo, not even the Japanese people he meets seem to know who he is. I mean, I went to Japan when I was 23. I was a complete nobody, and still teenage girls ran up to me to take my picture. Maybe there's something existential here about Murray's unusual anonymity, but it feels poorly thought-out.

In the end, I found Lost in Translation to be well-made, amiable, and harmless. But I can't help but think that Coppola was more interested in bolstering up her coolness quotient by exploring the uber-hip Tokyo scene than in her pseudo-Wong Kar Wai storyline, and is simply lucky to have two fine actors so dedicated to delivering thoughtful, fully lived-in performances.