A Love Affair for the postcollege, flirting-with-Buddhism set, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a travelogue of the emotions, concerned with the deepening relationship between a playful, bored, world-famous roué and an edgily intelligent woman who doesn’t keep busy enough. The roué is all-American Bill Murray, rather than Love Affair‘s excitingly Gallic Charles Boyer; the woman, Scarlett Johansson, is considerably younger than was Irene Dunne; and the meeting place, where these voyagers temporarily float free of their attachments, is not a trans-Atlantic steamship but the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo. With those adjustments taken into account, though, and with the crucial substitution of color film for black and white, you might say that Coppola has done something remarkably improbable for a young filmmaker who is cool by birth. She has dreamed up a close contemporary analogy to the Leo McCarey classic, right down to its chapel scene. Lost in Translation turns out to be a relaxed and surprisingly chaste character study, in which a difficult-to-impossible romance takes place in a luxurious setting full of music and spiritual longing.
Spiritual longing might in fact be the film’s defining element, even though Coppola has begun with a shot of Johansson’s recumbent tush, which in the soft green light looks like a panty-clad hill, all lush and vernal. You know at a glance that someone will want a leisurely climb; and even without having seen the trailer, you can be sure that the someone is Murray. Economy of means: With a single image, Coppola signals that Lost in Translation will grow tense around the question of when and how Murray will get into bed with Johansson. And more: Since all but the most untutored moviegoers know that the age difference between these actors nearly matches that between Coppola and her father, Francis, the answer to the question would seem to entail not just plot complications but also legal issues, or maybe atavistic horror.
Who could be so clean-minded as to ignore the implications? Not Coppola. She brings the daughter-father theme right to the surface by making parenting the core subject of her characters’ deepest conversation. As Johansson lies next to Murray–I will confirm that she’s in bed, although I won’t reveal when or how she got there–he gives her the kind of common-sense advice that a drifting twentysomething might want from a father. In an act of ventriloquistic wish-fulfillment on Coppola’s part, Murray even tells her that his children are the most delightful people he could ever hope to meet. It’s a lovely sentiment under any circumstances, and all the more touching when the father is horizontal beside his nubile daughter-surrogate.
But, that said, who could be so dirty-minded as to insist on an incestuous Sofia-Francis reading of Lost in Translation, when the characters spend less time in bed than they do riding the Park Hyatt elevators? Johansson and Murray also visit karaoke bars, game arcades and Buddhist temples, contemplate flower arrangements and neon signs, sit around in still more bars and then wonder aloud about how seriously to take a book titled A Soul’s Search. Of course the possibility of sex continues to hover as they do these things; but the opportunity is also continually edged aside, since these characters are smart enough to know that sex is a way to lose themselves, and what they really want is to get their bearings from each other. Lost in Translation is about the dislocation of these two people–in Tokyo, but also in the course of their lives.
The dislocation seems all the more absurd for Murray because of his superior height, which makes him stand out like a landmark in every scene. Like a landmark, he is pointed at, photographed and gathered under, not just because of his size but because he is playing the role of Bob Harris, a Hollywood star who has come to Japan to endorse a brand of whiskey and collect $2 million. This circumstance would make some men feel secure in the world–and yet Murray spends most of the film gazing down with muted, baggy-eyed astonishment. Already weary from travel when he comes onto the scene, then further undermined by insomnia and drink–“The good news,” he says, “is the whiskey works”–he greets most situations with a reptilian blink, a swallow (as the initial wisecrack slides down his throat) and then a quietly voiced rejoinder, the import of which is generally “Get me out of here.”