A tale of strangers igniting sparks in a strange land, Lost in Translation amounts to beautiful frustration.
The talented young writer-director Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) conceives her second picture as a Tokyo-set duet between Scarlett Johansson as a neglected newlywed and Bill Murray as an over-the-hill movie star with a moribund marriage back home. But this movie registers like a pop song that enters the mind only in fragments because, as a whole, it lacks the style or substance to be memorable.
In fact, what Coppola has wrought is akin to a super-refined music video. She uses evocative sounds, songs and atmosphere to nudge the audience through fleeting moods in a comic-melancholy vein. She effortlessly gets the evanescent textures that her father, Francis, sweated for in One from the Heart, but the movie still lacks flesh and blood.
Both of Coppola's leads are situational insomniacs. Johansson's photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), rushing off to his assignments, has left her lolling around in her underwear and pondering identity and fate as only a recent Yale philosophy major could. Murray, shooting a lucrative whiskey commercial, spends his time turning a jaundiced eye on local glad-handers and making a few small feints at getting in shape, including boarding a treadmill and promptly falling off. Then the two strike up a conversation late one night in the hotel bar and start to pal around in this half-delicate, half-garish city.
Unexpectedly to them, if not to us, they grow attached. Murray, a master of curdled poignancy, can express the pricks of longing and renewal with a twitch of his crumpled face. Johansson has a funky, free-floating yearning that gets viewers peering keenly into the shadows of her smile. They succeed at suggesting that a male-female friendship can bridge a quarter-century age gap and become warm and possessive without turning sexual. But is that plus a yen for shooting in Tokyo sufficient cause to make a movie? Not in this case.
Dramatically - and comically, too - Lost in Translation suffers from abstinence. Determined to resist vulgarity and be true to her own sensibility, Coppola appears proud of her decision to keep the central relationship from going anywhere. Every time the characters work up a fine head of steam it devolves into a fine mist. Every time the script courts depth it crumbles.
There are sour satiric sketches. When Murray and his wife talk over the phone from L.A., she's more obsessed with the interior decoration of their house than with the interior of his heart and mind. When Johansson and Ribisi run into one of his photo-shoot acquaintances (possibly a former bedmate), it's a bimbo starlet who has just made a movie with Keanu Reeves and is eager to trumpet the value of the latest internal-cleansing craze.
There are also trite moments of wisdom, when Murray advises his new friend that having children reawakens a parent to life's wonders. Murray and Johansson team up on a charming karaoke scene. Too bad Coppola feels the need to rhyme it with the crowd-pleasing bit of that obnoxious starlet murdering "Nobody Does It Better."
When Johansson tells Murray that she doesn't want to return because Tokyo will never be such fun again, you may, at first, take the statement as a deadpan joke. But as the action winds down into a long goodbye, you realize that Coppola is trying for the tear-jerking oomph of David Lean's Brief Encounter and Summertime without risking anything that could be derided as soap opera.
With its view of modern Tokyo as an inexplicable metropolis, the movie also resembles an intellectually marked-down version of Chris Marker's hour-long 1966 documentary, The Koumiko Mystery, about a Japanese girl drifting through the city during the '64 Olympics. Much of the humor is as broad, simple and satisfying as an old Sid Caesar routine, such as Murray figuring out what a hooker means when she screams out, "Lip my stockings!" But the spiritual flourishes, like Johansson's hanging an origami crane on a tree, are so uniformly wispy they float into thin air.
Coppola may take us inside a shabu-shabu restaurant or a flower-arranging class, but her details don't add up to a vision. What Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, Calif., is true of Coppola's Tokyo: "There's no there there." Only a gorgeous, mystifying somewhere.
Lost in Translation
Starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Released by Focus
Time 102 minutes
Sun score: ** 1/2