Ad-libbing on Tokyo Time

Visualize Tokyo. Now add Bill Murray, doing his “lovable shmoe” shtick. Toss in American Rhapsody‘s up-and-comer Scarlett Johansson, doing her standard “like, duh” face. Dip them both in emotional torpor, add local color, stir. Et voila: Lost in Translation.

Sofia Coppola, the youngish director and heiress to American cinema, did things her way a few years ago with her ambitious, poignant adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides. This time around, though, her effort feels as pedestrian and confused as its subjects. She hasn’t delivered a turkey — it’s a cute little movie, if not as rich as her brother Roman’s similarly themed CQ — but when work this potentially satisfying remains flatly obvious, it’s almost worse than if it were flat-out bad.

Depressed Charlotte (Johansson) is loitering at the Tokyo Hyatt in hopes that her busy photojournalist husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), will take five to comfort her. No such luck, but Charlotte does find a friend in Bob Harris (Murray), an American movie star and cultural castaway in town for the noble task of plugging whiskey.

For a while, Coppola delivers some loose chuckles shuffling between Bob’s bits of business (his silly-hipster commercial director expects him to channel the entire Rat Pack) and Charlotte’s morose meandering (she ventures to a temple and blankly regards it). Bob deals with a peculiarly unamusing escort (“Lip my stockings! Lip them!” she commands) assigned by his corporate hosts, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice. Charlotte tries in vain to tolerate a visiting airhead starlet (Anna Faris) who holds court at a vapid hotel press conference. These annoyances are amplified because Bob and Charlotte are both alienated, culture-shocked and suffering globe-trotter’s insomnia.

When their paths finally intersect, the movie becomes neither a passionate romance nor a witty comedy. That’s not necessarily a problem; those in-between stages tend to be life’s most interesting and cinema’s most delicious. But it’s evident that the leads are ad-libbing and that they’re either not very good at it or they weren’t astutely directed — or both. Coppola’s original screenplay presumes that Bob’s clichéd waning-marriage dismay and Charlotte’s clichéd finding-her-way confusion are adequate character development in and of themselves. They’re not.

Perhaps it cuts a little too close to home when Charlotte moans, “I tried being a writer, but I hate what I write. I tried to be a photographer, but I don’t take good pictures.” If she’s the director’s mouthpiece, we’ve got a problem. Lost in Translation, shot on 35-mm film with a big-league cast, would be more welcome as the product of an amateur with a DV camera, or even something the director herself made with her friends. But a well-heeled princess with a professional crew struggling to prove her funky street cred ends up feeling lost indeed.

Categories: Movies