LOST IN TRANSLATION Sofia didn’t screw it up.

Lost in Translation

dir. Coppola

Opens Fri Sept 19

Various Theaters

Lost in Translation is a tiny movie, as light as helium and draped upon the thinnest of plots. There is very little conflict, and even fewer twists and turns. It is as close to a miracle as you're likely to get this year.

The film opens en route to Tokyo. Inside a limousine sits Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an actor on the downslope of his career. Exhausted and disheveled, Bob gazes absently out the window, watching as Tokyo's strange neon decadence blurs past. His expression is cold and cynical, and as he passes a massive billboard tattooed with his own brooding mug, his cynicism only swells; he is a man who obviously hates himself in the mirror, let alone towering over an intersection.

Bob has been lured to Japan for the tidy sum of $2 million. His sponsor: Suntory pure malt whiskey (43% alc./vol.), which is grossly overpaying him for a brief appearance in a commercial. His trip is scheduled to last a week, and Suntory has placed him in the Park Hyatt, one of the city's swankiest hotels. Gigantic and gorgeous, the Park Hyatt is a bit of an aberration in Tokyo, offering ample space and comfort in one of the most cramped and crowded cities in the world. Such extravagance is intended as a testimony to the hotel's poshness, but to Bob it produces an unintended feeling of isolation; in a city where 13 million people--most of whom do not speak sturdy English--occupy 844 square miles, Bob finds himself confused and painfully lonely.

It is a loneliness shared by Charlotte, a young, smart woman in Tokyo with her photographer husband. That Charlotte is played by Scarlett Johansson means that the audience is sure to fall in love with her; stunning to look at, yet unconventional in her looks, Johansson--best known, perhaps, as Rebecca in Ghost World--is the perfect choice for the role, for every time her eyes slump in sadness your heart plummets. And Charlotte, as it turns out, has much to be sad about, for her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) barely gives her any notice, merely peppering her with "I love you's on his way out the door to his assignments--"I love you's that loudly ring hollow in their large hotel room.

And so it is that Bob and Charlotte eventually find one another out of mutual isolation. And so it also is that while watching Lost in Translation one naturally becomes wary that Sofia Coppola, who also wrote the picture, has unwisely decided to explore a May/December romance. But Coppola smartly has other interests in mind, as Bob and Charlotte flirt, to be sure, but their flirting is built upon an easy camaraderie rather than repressed sexual needs. Suffering from insomnia, saddled with very little to do in a strange city, the two bond like soldiers facing similarly uncomfortable circumstances, and the easy conversation that bounces back and forth between the two helps to inoculate them from both their confusing surroundings and their confusing lives. When together, their failing marriages and general lack of solid direction in life are hidden from view, and all that's left is their natural personalities--personalities that fit snuggly together.

In less delicate hands, Lost in Translation could easily have been a dull, pretentious disaster, but Coppola (whose Virgin Suicides was a well-made but oddly distant first effort) has two cards tucked up her sleeves. One is the city of Tokyo itself, which has never looked so mysterious and engaging in an American film, and the other is Bill Murray, the bulk of whose part comes across as having been improvised. Why someone has not thought of dropping Murray among the citizens of a strange foreign city before remains a mystery, but without him--and despite the fine work of Coppola and Johansson--Lost in Translation would surely fail. At first glance, the casting of Murray, who has never been known for a handsome face, may seem an odd one for the part of a hugely famous actor prostituting himself in Japan (and nearly bedding a beautiful young woman in the process), but while watching Lost in Translation you quickly realize that only he could make it work. The way in which he carries himself in the picture, near always cracking wise, but quite obviously wounded beneath his rumpled frame, is both wonderful and depressing to witness, and it is a performance hard to imagine any other actor being able to muster. It is the performance of Murray's career, and it may, in fact, be the performance of the year.

Simple, sad, and beautiful, Lost in Translation is one of those rare films that affects you not just as you're watching it, but long after you've left the theater as well. It is an exceptionally romantic film without any real romantic gestures, and this, in the end, may be Coppola's best trick; neatly sidestepping our expectations, she winds up making us long for that which we had previously dreaded. At first we scoff at the thought of Bob and Charlotte becoming entangled, but by the end of the film it is all we wish to see. We want a love story, but Coppola gives us a beautiful heartbreak instead.