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Pick of the Week: “Lost in Translation” DVD

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Outside the hotel room in the corporate-looking Park Hyatt Tokyo lies a teeming, sprawling, neon-lit, high-rise metropolis. Inside, two discontented Americans—a middle-aged man and a woman three decades his junior—watch “La Dolce vita” on television. This is one of several images that stick in my mind from the movie “Lost in Translation” (2003).

I liked “Lost in Translation” better than any new film I’ve seen during the last three or four years, and I’m not surprised it has been nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Bill Murray), Best Director (Sofia Coppola), and Best Original Screenplay (also Sofia Coppola). Bill Murray gives a great and nuanced performance—I think the best of his impressive career—but he was indeed fortunate to have playing opposite him Scarlett Johansson, who at 18 convincingly plays a woman of about 23.

I loved the bittersweet mix of comedy and drama in the movie, and the Tokyo location shooting (with a side trip to Kyoto) set a mood that drew me into the story. To my way of thinking, writer-director Sofia Coppola managed to capture the spirit of the Japanese notion that transience is at the heart of poignancy, “mono no aware,” the feeling that I had seen something delicate that could not last and I was lucky to have caught it before it transformed into something less lovely.

The story in “Lost in Translation” is about two lonely Americans visiting Tokyo—Bob Harris (Murray), a middle-aged actor making whiskey ads, and Charlotte (Johansson), the young wife of a photographer who’s always off working. The plot is slight, and the performances of Murray and Johansson are subtle and naturalistic. Perhaps it was mostly because of the acting that I had the feeling of eavesdropping on their characters’ lives. The film successfully conveyed to me what it means for two people who are adrift to find each other, even if only for a little while.

Much of the first part of “Lost in Translation” is played for fish-out-water comedy, and I got some good chuckles out of it. I especially liked the sequence where Murray’s character, Bob Harris, poses for some still photos to advertise whiskey. The Japanese photographer asks for the “Lat” Pack, and Bob dutifully tries to give him Sinatra, then Dino, and finally Joey Bishop. Next the director wants double-oh-seven, and while Bob would prefer to go for Sean Connery, the director asks for “Loger” Moore.

I have to hand it to Sofia Coppola for mostly avoiding clichés. A good example is the scene where Charlotte first notices Bob. They are both in the Park Hyatt cocktail lounge, which is designed to soothe the business traveler. There a musical group called Sausalito performs numbers like “The Thrill Is Gone” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” Charlotte is trapped at a table where her workaholic photographer husband and his clients are going over pictures he has taken. Charlotte sees Bob sitting alone at a table across the room, and she has a waiter deliver a cup over to him. Bob acknowledges her by making eye contact and raising the cup, but he immediately leaves without exchanging a single word with her. This seems to me a long way from a Hollywood romantic comedy cute meet.

I think Coppola does an exceptionally good job of using pop music to complement her wispy story and evocative visual style. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sequence where Bob and Charlotte spend several hours carousing with some Japanese people from the fashion industry. Everyone ends up in a karaoke session, where a Japanese man called Charlie Brown does “God Save the Queen,” Murray performs “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” and Johansson does “Brass in Pocket.” All this goes on for a long time, but I think that’s essential so that we can watch Bob’s and Charlotte’s inhibitions slowly being broken down. It looks to me as though it’s during Murray’s performance of “More Than This” that Bob and Charlotte finally emotionally connect with each other.

“Lost in Translation” is episodic, and Coppola exploits that structure well to keep us wondering what will happen next. There is a bit of narrative drive that comes from our curiosity about what Bob and Charlotte will do about their feelings toward each other. I won’t spoil your fun by giving away the ending, but I found Coppola’s resolution quite satisfying.

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