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'Lost In Translation'

'Lost in Translation' s Oscar material

Friday, September 26, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Bill Murray's face seemed to be locked in a perpetual smirk during his salad days on "Saturday Night Live" and in his early comedy films "Meatballs," "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters." He was the quintessential smart aleck, a slacker too cool to act like he really cared (except when hunting gophers in "Caddyshack").



RATING: R, for some sexual content.

STARRING: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson.

DIRECTOR: Sofia Coppola.


But a serious thing happened on the way to the laugh track -- Murray started using his goofy charm in more complex films including "Groundhog Day," "Ed Wood" and especially "Rushmore." And look at him now.

He stars with Scarlett Johansson in the best movie of the year so far, Sofia Coppola's sublime "Lost in Translation," giving a performance that quietly demands Oscar consideration -- as does the film itself.

Murray has progressed as an actor to the point where, in a single facial expression, he seems to convey a dozen emotions -- sarcasm, yes, but also regret, exasperation, resignation, amusement, longing, loneliness, befuddlement, anxiety and even fleeting happiness.

Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star whose best days are behind him. He goes to Tokyo to shoot a series of whisky ads for which he will pocket a hefty fee. He can't understand a thing the director tells him, and the translator only makes it worse. When he phones his wife, the tone of her voice makes it clear that the passion is gone. He can't sleep at night, and jet lag doesn't seem to be the reason.

One night in the hotel bar, he meets Charlotte (Johansson), who is young enough to be his daughter. She's the wife of a photographer, John (Giovanni Ribisi), who is on assignment and basically leaves her to her own devices. They know some people in Tokyo, but she spends much of her time in their hotel room, behind the glass window separating her from a busy metropolis she can barely comprehend.

Bob and Charlotte form a friendship, but "Lost in Translation" doesn't take the easy way out by rushing them into a sexual relationship. Coppola, the film's writer and director, is smart enough to know that would ruin the movie, not just because of the age difference but because this story isn't about bodies coupling but souls trying to make a connection in a world where superficiality and isolation run rampant.

That's where the humor comes in. Coppola turns Tokyo into the third character of the movie, with its colorful and massive neon signs, its pachinko parlors and video arcades, bars and dance clubs all jammed with young people. Harris lets himself be talked into appearing on a talk show that turns out to be the most overproduced display of artificial hilarity since Arsenio Hall went late night.

You can't help but laugh at such moments, which in turn allow us to share the mirth they engender in Bob and Charlotte. The movie encourages us to be their accomplices, and we end up sharing Coppola's affection for Tokyo, evident underneath the cultural confusion.

Johansson, sometimes donning a pink wig, takes us with her new friend to places where he and we can feel young and carefree. She excels at accentuating both her differences with Murray and the emotions that Bob and Charlotte discover they have in common. One of the highlights comes when Bob sings karaoke and turns it into something wonderfully touching.

As you may have surmised by now, "Lost in Translation" doesn't have much of a plot. It's a character study made poignant by the performances of the two leads and most of all a mood piece, blending real feelings that run the gamut of possibilities -- much like Murray's world-weary visage. In any language, this movie casts an enchanting spell.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at or 412-263-1581.

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