Patterning her film on the time-honored premise of lonely strangers in strange surroundings finding solace in each other's company (the current Claude Lelouch film "And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen" is another variation), Coppola manages to transcend all the usual romantic clichés, almost daring the audience to second-guess her by framing the picture around two figures who would normally have nothing in common if not for the fact that they're both Americans simultaneously suffering the culture shock of a first-time visit to Japan. Aging movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) has arrived in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial while recent college grad Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is simply tagging along on a job with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Both manifest obvious feelings of alienation in this neon-encrusted, digitized collision of modernity and antiquity, but it's their shared alienation from life and love that brings them together.
In stark defiance of formal narrative, Coppola's film follows a course more akin to the movies of the French New Wave than anything American; it's directionless but not aimless, the course of the story dictated by the spontaneous evolution of a relationship that transcends sex, romance and even friendship.
Given that so much of the picture must be shouldered by the two performers, one cannot help but be awed by what Murray and Johansson have crafted, generating the kind of on-screen chemistry that rarely graces American cinemas without the intermediary of subtitling. It's been years since Murray has been this funny or this affecting, and he has certainly never been this understated. Johansson is equally impressive, measuring Murray scene for scene with a canny blend of soulful sadness and cunning confidence. But this is still, first and foremost, Coppola's film. At 32, she is roughly the same age as her father was when he made "The Godfather," and there is no reason to doubt that she is any less in command of the medium than he was at the same stage. Her voice is distinctive, her style utterly unique. It is her understanding of things far beyond her years, however, that impresses most--her ability to convincingly tap into the rarest of emotions and communicate them to a mass audience.
Ostensibly, "Lost in Translation" is a film about love, albeit one which has the audacity to ask what love is--and the courage to leave the question unanswered. Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris. Directed and written by Sofia Coppola. Produced by Sofia Coppola and Ross Katz. A Focus release. Drama. Rated R for some sexual content. Running time: 102 min