Sleepless in Tokyo

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.

Coppola allows for the strangeness in these people’s lives. She doesn’t try to “understand” them in any conventional sense. Nor does she try to fit herself into the Tokyo landscape; the movie, which was shot by Lance Acord in lustrous nocturnal tones, presents Japan as an outsider might see it, without apology. The night-worlds both within the hotel and without are equally odd and forbidding. Everything seems hushed—suspended in time—and yet there is always the sense of violence about to break loose. In Japan, the most extreme delicacy goes hand in hand with garishness, and Coppola offers up both for our delectation. It’s a heady, hallucinatory combo. Bob and Charlotte would be dazed even if they got as much sleep as Rip Van Winkle.

As Roy, the chain-smoking, obsessive-compulsive con man with a full range of tics in Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage has what might charitably be called the ultimate Nicolas Cage role. He’s an actor who likes to come apart on-camera, and Roy’s many phobias provide him with an ample arsenal. The problem is, director Ridley Scott has a few tics of his own. We never get the full effect of Cage’s herky-jerk performance because Scott is busy tricking up the action with shock cuts and other distracting bits of business. At times, it’s like watching a glitzy TV commercial for ADD.

Roy likes to think of himself as a con artist, but he’s strictly a small-timer. To his horror, and wary delight, his world opens up when the 14-year-old daughter he never knew (Alison Lohman) suddenly appears and wants to be a grifter, too. Their scenes together have a Paper Moon–ish appeal, but it’s all a bit bumptious and heartwarming, even when the inevitable triple-cross occurs. This movie also made me think of Monk, the difference being that Roy, unlike Tony Shalhoub’s soulful, hyperphobic investigator, is a species of clown. His turmoil is on display for its photogenic qualities— which is perhaps what attracted Ridley Scott to the project in the first place. The movie is moderately enjoyable, but it also makes you feel conned: It offers up a disturbing protagonist and then substitutes cuteness for character.

Cory Yuen’s So Close is a kind of Hong Kong martial-arts variation on the Charlie’s Angels movies, only better. The plot has something to do with big bad computer magnates and cyber-counterforces, but mostly it’s just an excuse to watch three dazzling ladies, Shu Qi, Zhao Wei, and Karen Mok, spin and whirl and swoop. Movie-fight fans will not want to miss this, but the ABT should take a look, too.

Sleepless in Tokyo