Ad-libbing on Tokyo Time

Sofia Coppola and her cast get Lost in Translation

Visualize Tokyo. Got it? Now add popular favorite 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 into emotional torpor in the sleek Park Hyatt, add local color, stir. Et voilà: Lost in Translation.

For Sofia Coppola, this must have been the easiest pitch in the world -- which is perhaps helpful when pitching to Daddy. The youngish director and heiress to American cinema did things her way a few years ago with her ambitious adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides, crafting a truly poignant slab of Middle American art with A-list Hollywood talent. 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 being flat-out bad.

We begin with a close-up of an ass, and it's tempting to suggest that the remainder of the film is simply a product thereof, but the project's kindly nature doesn't call for that kind of harshness. Rather, the tone is more distinctly bumming. The peach-panty-clad glutes belong to dewy depressed Charlotte (Johansson), who's loitering at the 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 surrogate friend in Bob Harris (Murray), an American movie star and cultural castaway who's in town for the noble task of plugging whiskey.

For a while, Coppola shuffles us along between Bob's bits of business (his silly-hipster commercial director expects him to channel the entire Rat Pack, and Roger Moore to boot) and Charlotte's morose meandering (she ventures to a temple, blankly regards it). While Charlotte wanders her own personal ghost world, one wonders, "What about Bob?" And so Coppola delivers some loose chuckles back and forth. Bob deals with a peculiarly unamusing premium fantasy woman (Nao Asuka) assigned by his corporate hosts ("Lip my stockings! Lip them!" she commands), so he's got that going for him, which is nice. Soon, Charlotte tries in vain to tolerate a visiting airhead starlet (Anna Faris) who holds court at a typically vapid hotel news conference. These annoyances are amplified because Bob and Charlotte are both alienated, culture-shocked, and suffering globetrotter's insomnia.

When their paths finally intersect -- from a generation or more apart -- the movie becomes neither a passionate romance nor a witty comedy but something nebulous in between. This isn't necessarily a problem, since those in-between stages tend to be life's most interesting and cinematically delicious. What is problematic, though, is that Coppola's approach -- this time coming from her own original screenplay -- feels incredibly presumptuous, as if 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. We're left with vague sketches glued together by loads of hand-picked alterna-pop.

Once the halfway mark arrives and it's abundantly clear that the movie's going nowhere slowly, Coppola sends her protagonists out clubbing, where they encounter Charlie Brown, or "Chalrie Blown" (the director's friend, Fumihiro Hayashi) who's so thinly developed that he makes Bob and Charlotte look like classic Dickensian creations. Charlie's primary purpose here is to sing us some Sex Pistols at a karaoke bar, which is very much appreciated until it encourages much more disturbing renditions of new wave classics from the primary cast, which genuinely induce nausea.

The second half of the film feels even looser, as Murray and Johansson revisit familiar locations -- their hotel rooms, the crass hotel bar, the sidewalks where unsuspecting "extras" are presumably captured gratis -- and mutter about their disorientation. Again, this is the sort of thing that could work well (see Big Shot's Funeral), but here it's amply evident that the leads are ad-libbing, and they're just not very good at it, or they weren't astutely directed, or both. Their chemistry is supposed to engender gentle patriarchal feelings, girlhood hopes, whatever, but instead it just sputters along, not offensively, but not engagingly.

Perhaps it cuts just a little too close to home when Charlotte bemoans: "I just don't know what I want to be. I tried being a writer, but I hate what I write. I tried to be a photographer, but I don't take good pictures." Well, that's OK, but if she's the director's mouthpiece, we've got a problem. This is further complicated by Lost in Translation's being another feature shot on 35mm film with an A-list cast. An amateur with a DV camera would be more welcome under these circumstances, or even the director herself just wandering with her friends across the street from her father's San Francisco offices into Chinatown. But a well-heeled princess with a professional crew struggling to prove her funky street cred ends up feeling lost indeed.

 
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