In the neon nightscape of Tokyo, Bob Harris' face sort of smiles from an electronic billboard. Bob (Bill Murray) is an American actor in town to shoot a Santori commercial--as he puts it, "getting $2 million endorsing a whiskey when I should be doing a play or something." After 25 years of marriage and a stagnant career, Bob has eased himself into the warm bath of depression. The cunning jokes he emits are the fart bubbles that keep others amused and himself awake. During the Santori shoot he agreeably mimics Rat Packers Dean Martin and Joey Bishop and, because the photographer asks, James Bond--not Sean Connery but Roger Moore. Bob obliges with killer impressions.
Bob makes people laugh because he's good at it. But that shrugging sense of humor can't give his life purpose or propulsion. His first night in town, as he sits on the edge of his bed in a hotel bathrobe and floppy slippers, he looks like a sad samurai in forced retirement. The next morning, he is startled out of sleep by the bedroom drapes briskly, noisily, automatically opening to reveal slashes of sunlight--that's his wake-up call. Tokyo has another alarm clock in store for Bob. He needs the jolt of friendship, and he finds it in Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young wife who is as restless as Bob is. When she asks how long he's staying in Tokyo, he replies like a lounge singer at the end of his act, "I'll be in the bar for the rest of the week."
Lost in Translation revels in contradictions. It's a comedy about melancholy, a romance without consummation, a travelogue that rarely hits the road. Sofia Coppola has a witty touch with dialogue that sounds improvised yet reveals, glancingly, her characters' dislocation. She's a real mood weaver, with a gift for goosing placid actors (like Johansson, who looks eerily like the young James Spader) and mining a comic's deadpan depths. Watch Murray's eyes in the climactic scene in the hotel lobby: while hardly moving, they express the collapsing of all hopes, the return to a sleepwalking status quo. You won't find a subtler, funnier or more poignant performance this year than this quietly astonishing turn.
As a two-character film, Lost isn't quite fair to Bob's wife--a hectoring, transpacific phone voice--or to Charlotte's photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), who's easily beguiled by blond starlets. The movie also makes too much easy fun of the Japanese: that they are a short people who speak in very long sentences and mix up their ls and rs. (A prostitute invades Bob's room and orders him to "lip my stockings.") But that's just America's cultural myopia at work abroad. We go there and wonder, Why don't these people speak English? What are they doing here?
In this alien land, in this tiny, lovely film, Bob and Charlotte briefly create a home out of their kinship. They come to realize they're not locked in stasis; they are souls in transition, grazing each other and striking sweet sparks.
--By Richard Corliss