Lost in Translation. Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for some sexual content and brief nudity). Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris.

Lost in Translation

There's a shot about halfway through Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, in which Scarlett Johansson is sitting in the back seat of a car, staring out at the Tokyo skyline. Reflected in the window, almost superimposed over Johansson's face, are the bright lights of Tokyo. It's a simple shot, there's nothing particularly ingenious about it, but the first thing you think of when you see it is just how beautiful it is.

Now, there's plenty original and ingenious about Lost in Translation. The previous example is just to give an idea of how beauty permeates even the simplest frame of the film. The direction, the writing, and the performances are all handled with such care that it is impossible not to be affected by the beauty of it all.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a down-and-out actor in Japan for a week to shoot a series of whiskey commercials. Charlotte (Johansson) is on a trip to Japan with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), but he wants to spend more time with the band he's photographing than with Charlotte. Eventually, the two meet. At first, their meetings are simple, fleeting; a smile in the elevator, short conversations at the bar. But as time passes, and as the two become more alone and lost in the unfamiliar surroundings, the more they come to depend upon one another for support.

In a time filled with clichéd, for-the-masses romances, Lost in Translation is amazing in the way it handles the relationship between Bob and Charlotte with truth and honesty. A lesser film would have turned Bob and Charlotte into a May-November romance. Instead, Lost in Translation shows that, although the attraction is there, it would never work, and it can never happen. Writer/director Sofia Coppola cares too much about these characters to cheapen them by sending them to bed together. And the last scene, which culminates and ties up everything, is touching, poignant, and absolutely true to the characters.

Lost in Translation's screenplay is brilliant. As already mentioned, the relationship between Bob and Charlotte is handled with more truth and integrity than any other movie of 2003. Coppola also manages to fit in moments or humor funnier than many pure comedies. The humor is never over-the-top, and it mainly has to do with the differences between Japanese and American cultures. Lost in Translation's dialogue is also wonderful, filled with insight and truth. The characters don't talk in long, eloquent sentences, but their statements are no less good for it.

This is, without a doubt, the best work Bill Murray has ever done. He balances drama with moments of low-key humor to deliver a - dare I say it? - perfect performance. As a tired man, a man in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Murray never goes over the top. There are several moments where he could have over-done it in the name of comedy, but he stays true to the character - Bob Harris is a man who has to be funny for a living, and he's tired of it; he could be funny, but he doesn't want to. Nearly matching Murray is Scarlett Johansson, who is quickly proving herself to be one of our most talented young actresses. Johansson has been great in other movies (The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World), but this is her best work, and the performance that should get her noticed. She captures Charlotte's sadness and confusion perfectly, and her final moments on screen are haunting. If, come Oscar time, these performances aren't honored with at least nominations, I'm going to have some pretty nasty things to say about the Academy.

I really miss the characters of Lost in Translation. As the film is playing out, you feel like you're in the company of two genuinely real people; as the credits roll, it feels as if something is missing. Now, as I write this, nearly all of Lost in Translation is clear in my head, and I can't wait to see it again. At this point, Lost in Translation is the movie to beat of 2003.

© 2003 Matt Noller