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Sleepless in Tokyo

In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays a man stranded in a posh, all-inclusive hotel that serves as a metaphor for his numbed existence.

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Jet lag: Bill Murray and Scarlett Jahansson in Lost in Translation.  

I hope it will not be taken as a backhanded compliment if I say that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is the best movie about jet lag ever made. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an over-the-hill movie star who is in Tokyo to pick up some easy money filming commercials for Suntory whiskey. Entombed in the ultrasleek Park Hyatt, unable to sleep, he frequents the hotel’s low-lit bars and listens numbly to the lounge acts. He has no use for the Tokyo hubbub and ventures outside only at his peril. He looks like the undead.

The real world keeps intruding, though. Bob’s wife repeatedly faxes him from L.A. with needling queries about home redecoration. Another hotel guest, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who is accompanying her frenetically busy fashion-photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), strikes up a tentative friendship with him based on their shared grogginess. She brings Bob into the clubs and pachinko parlors and karaoke bars, and gradually this deeply unhappy man begins to unwind. He and Charlotte aren’t lovers in any physical sense, but they enjoy the novelty of each other’s company. They know that this is one of those far-flung friendships that will last only for the length of their stay, and it’s sweeter (and more unsettling) for being so.

Coppola both wrote and directed, and there’s a pleasing shapelessness to her scenes. She accomplishes the difficult feat of showing people being bored out of their skulls in such a way that we are never bored watching them. She does this by creating such empathy for Bob and Charlotte that our identification with them is almost total. Coppola has hit on a metaphor for modern alienation that is so mundane it’s funny: She transforms the dark night of the soul into one big cryptlike luxury hotel. It’s no wonder that when Bob decides to make a run for it, he acts as if he’s planning a prison break.

Bill Murray has become an actor of extraordinary range over the years. It would have been easy for him to play Bob as a gaga jerk, but he never once succumbs to revue-sketch antics—not even when he belts out an Elvis Costello song in a karaoke bar. Murray conveys Bob’s tiredness at what he has become, which surely predates his arrival in Tokyo. He takes no pleasure in being recognized by American tourists, or in seeing himself in movies or commercials on Japanese TV. He’s settled into the kind of career where fame is essentially an annuity—and an annoyance. When, in a hilarious but also unexpectedly touching scene, he poses for his Suntory spot and feigns Sinatra-like insouciance, we can see how far from cool he has become.

When Bob is with Charlotte, he doesn’t act younger than his years. He is exactly who is he supposed to be: a jaded man momentarily brought out of himself. He has no illusions that this is anything but a spree. He has a scene in which he talks to Charlotte about the difficulties of his marriage and his sustaining love for his children that has tremendous resonance for her; he is letting her know that one doesn’t really get wiser as one gets older, just more temperate. Charlotte’s own marriage is a disappointment to her, and she spends part of her time in Tokyo frequenting Buddhist temples, or taking part in flower ceremonies, trying to fill a void. None of this really works for her, but Bob’s honesty, which is keyed to his weariness, does the trick. In the movies these days, it seems as if as soon as an actress hits her twenties, she becomes a snuggle-bunny. It’s a pleasure to see a performer who plays a young woman with smarts and substance.


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