It's been more than two months since I first screened "Lost in Translation," the sublimely personal, remarkably fine-tuned second feature by writer-director Sofia Coppola, and I must apologize for not reviewing it sooner. But the fact is, I was intimidated.
An esoteric yet warm, emotionally intimate portrayal of a bond blossoming between two disparate Americans in Tokyo -- spiritually adrift souls drawn together by mutual incongruity within their own lives and the culture around them -- it's so extraordinary in its beautiful, lyrical simplicity that I have been afraid to even try to describe it because I'm sure I can't do it justice.
Without a plot so much as a series of evocative connections and captured moments in a transitory but treasured friendship spawned of loneliness, ironic detachment and jet lag, "Lost" is driven by the exceptional performances of the pensive, sadly beautiful Scarlett Johansson ("Ghost World") and the unexpectedly vulnerable and empathetic Bill Murray.
Johansson plays Charlotte, a distressed, unmoored young married whose feelings of disconnection from her social-butterfly celebrity-photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi in a whirlwind two-scene cameo of perfectly pitched egoism) have grown more acute on this working vacation to Japan, where she has been abandoned to puttering around their high-rise hotel and wandering the dizzyingly alien, neon-emblazoned streets below without a companion.
Murray is Bob Harris, a fading Hollywood superstar on a short trip to collect a fat paycheck shilling for an upscale whiskey. Torn between professional regret (he's affably sardonic about striking tuxedoed James Bond poses in print ads) and the personal relief of being away from his stagnant life (his redecorating wife overnights carpet samples), he's disenchanted with himself and stuck in a weary rut.
They meet at the bar of the swanky hotel lounge when she wanders away from a her husband's table full of showbiz halfwits ("Scary Movie's" Anna Faris is hilarious as an extroverted dingbat starlet) and asks him -- in a way that indicates she's recognized him as a kindred lost spirit, not necessarily as a celebrity -- what he's doing in Japan.
"Taking a break from my wife, forgetting my son's birthday and getting $2 million to endorse some whisky when I could be doing a play somewhere," he unloads with a tinge of dry wit before taking a sip of his drink. "But the good news is, the whisky works."
"You're probably just having a midlife crisis," she says in discontented mock sympathy. "Did you buy a Porsche yet?"
Immediately finding comfort, solace and familiarity in each other's company, Bob and Charlotte are soon inventing reasons to spend time together -- sushi dinners, karaoke bars, sake and badly dubbed midnight movies on hotel pay-per-view -- as "Lost in Translation" becomes something utterly unique: a platonic romance of wonderfully, strangely life-affirming melancholy.
The sedate yet enticing depth, humor and paradoxical synergy of these two characters as they slowly, subtly revive each other's zest for life is hard to describe (and thus part of my critical intimidation), but Coppola's seemingly effortless, flawlessly fluid command of the film's moods and unspoken emotions is cinematic bliss.
Whether Coppola is encouraging Murray's glumly funny ad-libs during language-barrier frustrations on the commercial shoot, or reveling in the extremes of Japanese culture (deferentially bowing hotel clerks, outlandish sensory-assault TV variety shows), or conceding to American ethnocentricity (Murray and Johansson joke about serving her black-and-blue stubbed toe as sushi), or simply letting the camera linger silently as her heroine lolls on her bed in an introspective late-morning doldrum, the young director is so hard-wired into the uprooted displacement in her characters' hearts that even a private exchange between them that the audience isn't privy to evokes an almost visceral response, as if they were whispering in our ears.
Just as Coppola's dark but whimsical first film, "The Virgin Suicides," continues to reveal more of its inconspicuous, poetic brilliance with every viewing, "Lost in Translation" when revisited (I've seen it twice now) seems even more profound and soulful. It is, in every way, a next-step progression of this filmmaker's talent. It's more mature and self-possessed. It explores its characters more deeply and with more subtle emotional distinction. It's completely, spellbindingly novel and does not pander to anyone's expectations. It's enthralling in that understated way that gives astute, discerning filmgoers the shivers.
Sofia is the real deal, with the honest-to-goodness potential to be an even more important and influential filmmaker than her father (Francis Ford Coppola of "The Godfather"/"Apocalypse Now" fame, for those who don't already know).
I still doubt this review has done right by "Lost in Translation" -- in fact looking over my notes I see I've said nothing about the haunting way Johansson's voice can carry volumes of expression in the slightest inflections, or the mood-educing soundtrack, or the sumptuous cinematography that captures equally the significance of Johansson's slightest smile and the broad, buzzing, capricious chaos of downtown Tokyo.
But I hope at least you've come away with a sense of how completely this film absorbed me -- and I hope that will be enough to intrigue you, because ultimately if you see this movie because of this review, I've done what I'd set out to do.