- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

The introductory sequences of “Lost in Translation,” the second feature by Sofia Coppola, reveal an exceptionally attractive and promising sense of observation. Specifically, she’s introducing us to Tokyo through the eyes of a pair of American visitors destined to meet while booked at the same hotel, the Park Hyatt, a towering and scenic attraction in its own right.

The filmmaker’s surrogates should prove an entertaining, even irresistible, match of misfits: Bill Murray as a once prominent film actor; Bob Harris, who is collecting a king’s ransom to appear in a cycle of television commercials for a Japanese brand of whiskey; and Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, the well-educated but tag-along spouse of a celebrity photographer, Giovanni Ribisi’s seldom-seen John, too absorbed documenting the tour of a rock group to keep his wife company.

Miss Coppola makes it easy to warm to her intentions. Unfortunately, it also becomes easy to feel disappointed by her shortcomings: She resists building purposefully on those swell introductions and proves more of an exquisite avoider than a confident, gregarious comic observer.

For a time, it doesn’t seem to matter that we’re in the hands of a filmmaker disinclined to force characters or settings or situations upon us. The illusion of fresh and frequently astonished discovery is sufficient, from the etiquette of hotel employees greeting Mr. Murray to the perch in Miss Johansson’s suite that commands a majestic view of the city.

Taking things in and accumulating impressions seem a fine game plan for the first 30 or 40 minutes. There’s even a deftly uproarious comedy sequence on the job with Mr. Murray, when he’s confronted by both language barriers and the maniacal personality of a director (Yutaka Tadokoro) whose instructions defy comprehension. Except for his screams of “Cut-O, Cut-O” when dissatisfied with a take.

Bob and Charlotte repeatedly pass each other in the hotel and share similar reactions to some of the surrounding culture shock before they actually exchange a word. A certain amount of comic suspense is generated by the fact that you know the principal characters need to get acquainted sooner or later. You’re just not sure what Miss Coppola’s definition of sooner or later is until she delays so long that the only choice is “too late.”

Having put off the direct encounters needed to confirm Bob and Charlotte as lonesome strangers who discover each other and hang out together while castaways in the urban fantasy land of Tokyo, she’s at a loss for words when the encounters begin. Her reticence becomes so self-defeating — and leaves her actors so defenseless — that you feel like rushing out to recruit a charismatic screenwriter. I suspect there are many who would enjoy collaborating with a director as gentle and expectant as Miss Coppola.

The shortage of talking human comedy and intimacy is betrayed by repetitious images and situations. For example, Miss Johansson is posed at the scenic window at least twice too often. Unable to get Charlotte untracked, the filmmaker does force things with Anna Faris as a bubbleheaded actress in town to promote a movie — and flirt with the heroine’s husband, evidently an old acquaintance.

Charlotte does have a group of party-animal friends in Tokyo, but the partying itself becomes another barrier to sharing confidences with Bob. A running telephone gag finds him placing forlorn calls back home at odd hours. He seems to have a witty spouse at the other end, but clearly needs to bond with a simpatico countrywoman — and sense of humor — in the flesh.

It’s a sign of good breeding in Miss Coppola that she doesn’t try to broker an implausible carnal fling between Bob and Charlotte. For one thing, it would spoil her joke about how desperate he gets for erotic consolation after missing his chance to be manhandled by a screwball room service dominatrix, evidently a perk provided by the distillers.

Even when the movie sags, you remain grateful for its highlights, including an eye-bulging encounter with a TV host, Mathew Minami, misrepresented as the Johnny Carson of Japan. On the contrary, he’s closer to some comic nightmare in a Japanese animated film. Couldn’t Bill Murray have been encouraged to ad-lib some comic commentary? You need to hear something reassuring when trying to account for Japanese facetiousness at its most stupefying.

**1/2

TITLE: “Lost in Translation”

RATING: R (Fleeting profanity, nudity and sexual candor; an episode set at a Tokyo strip club)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Cinematography by Lance Acord. Production design by Anne Ross and K.K. Barrett. Costume design by Nancy Steiner. Additional Japanese unit supervised by Roman Coppola

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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