Strange Meeting

Sofia Coppola's second feature is a graceful, melancholic romance set in Tokyo and starring Bill Murray

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DIRECTED BY Sofia Coppola

STARRING Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

Opens January 9, Cert 15, 102 mins

Lose yourself in this. While the buzz may focus on its signifiers of hip (East meets West very stylishly, that hottest of directors, that Kevin Shields/Brian Reitzell soundtrack), Lost In Translation is a laconic, low-key Brief Encounter for an ad-fed generation. It’s wryly funny, often moving, and it’s very, very beautiful in a cool, uncloying manner. Coppola seems more confidently engaged with the material than she was on the dreamy, floaty, slightly overrated The Virgin Suicides. Johansson does well in a nebulous role (the whole film is nebulous, narcotic, in a terrific way). And Bill Murray? We’ve always known he was God, even though if you actually look at his filmography he’s made three stinkers for every great movie. Here, he’s perfect?everything we knew he could express, if he brought his A-game to the table, is expressed. He’s an unlikely romantic lead, which is the kind of romantic lead which gets you. And if it seems impossible to make an authentically romantic movie these days, when formulaic rom-coms have hacked down our disbelief from wherever we were suspending it, this is that movie.

Two strangers, stuck in Tokyo, a neurotic neon paradise. Bob (Murray) is a jaded movie star, shooting a silly whiskey ad for big money. He can’t connect, over disjointed phone calls and time zones, with his wife of 25 years. He watches TV in his hotel room, offends a call girl, drinks, improvises sketches with running machines. He wonders where what’s left of his life is going. The much younger Charlotte (Johansson), meanwhile, is abandoned in the same hotel while her photographer husband (Ribisi) goes off on ‘glamorous’ shoots (starlets, rock boys). He’s not a bad guy as such; just preoccupied and distracted.

Bob and Charlotte break the ice in the hotel bar; neither can sleep. An unconventional friendship develops. They hit the town, meet characters, sing wonderfully bad karaoke?for her, “Brass In Pocket”, for him, a mournful, tragicomic “More Than This”. They talk lots, realising that at any age, certain questions remain valid, certain puzzles can’t be solved. They become very close, for a moment, an air-lock from the everyday. Each realises it won’t physically lead to anything. They’re grateful for a brief bond, a refreshment of their awareness of the possible. They’re, for the first time in too long, inspired. And that’s it. No big explosions, no major palavers. As it hums its gentle tune, the film makes lovely observations, both comic and poignant, about loneliness and learning, commitment and yearning. Bob and Charlotte’s ennui (and subsequent energy) is portrayed via exquisite miniatures. Murray’s scenes prior to their meeting are acutely funny, even if they’re basically portrayals of a man dancing with self-loathing. Countered by a rising starlet (Anna Faris), he’s a sitting, slouching symbol of celebrity unhappiness. He’s seen through the shallow, but can no longer find the deep. The way he shifts away from a bunch of fans who are telling him he’s great is Murray at his most knowing and long-suffering.

The film’s other star is Tokyo, shot brilliantly (and also, conversely, bleakly) by Lance Acord. Cultural divides are mocked, but with affection; the hospital waiting room scene is a joy. You feel transported by mood as much as by place. It’s dislocated, yet accurately so. It’s a film of melancholic grace and charm, low on sentimentality and thus all the more affecting and plausible.

Magical to look at (be ready for one scene where Johansson and a crowd of umbrella-carriers teem through pouring rain in front of mile-high neon dinosaurs) yet truly soulful, it seems both classically timeless and very much of its time. As the camera stays with Bob’s limo as it leaves Tokyo, you leave with it, leaving the film, feeling a sense of something like loss, something like there’s a new chapter ahead.

Some of us perhaps thought this particular Coppola was a flash in the pan. A media-friendly story, a mere style and who-you-know thing. We were wrong. This is fascinated and fascinating, bewildered and smart, sarcastic but never smug. The first absolute must-see of the year. Let’s get lost.


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