"Lost in Translation" appears eminently capable of provoking that hoary old standby, the "mixed response." The zero-attention-span set will pillory it because it's deathly slow and has almost no plot to speak of, while the knee-jerk avant-gardists will proclaim it one of the year's best because ... well, because it's deathly slow and has almost no plot to speak of. Give the people what they want, eh?
What it is is a wistful little film that gradually insinuates itself upon your consciousness. Director/co-writer/co-producer Sofia Coppola plops Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson into a Tokyo hotel and watches them make goo-goo eyes at each other for 105 minutes, dancing around the potentiality of a torrid cross-generational affair we know can never be. It's more fun than you thought you'd ever have watching two other people not have sex.
Why is this so? Because Murray was born to flirt, and Johansson ("Ghost World," "The Man Who Wasn't There") looks great being flirted with. For his entire career, Murray has come across as a walking raised eyebrow, a playful cynic whose tongue-in-cheek cool is irresistible to women and men alike. He can't not be ironic. Here, he's Bob Harris, a fading American movie actor who's in Japan to shoot a TV commercial for a certain brand of whiskey. It would take a far more sincere man than Murray (for Harris is surely him) not to approach his situation with a protective armor of sarcasm: When not taking indecipherable direction from his non-English-speaking director, he's wrestling with the high-tech amenities of his hotel and nursing a growing sense of alienation (epitomized by a scene in which he watches a bunch of indigenous bathers doing aquatic exercises to the strains of the Rick James nugget "Love Gun"). He's bowed, but as long as he can keep coming up with sanity-saving quips, he's not quite beaten.
Johansson's Charlotte is in Tokyo under even less fulfilling circumstances. She's tagged along with her photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi, doing a so-so Sam Rockwell), whose assignment to shoot a rock band leaves her alone and idle for hours upon end. Bored to near-madness, she strikes up a comradeship with the likewise married Harris, and the two of them team up to explore the city as their mutual, forbidden-fruit attraction grows. Murray even gets to revisit his "SNL" days as Nick the Lounge Singer by belting out a karaoke version of Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" -- the best nod to a personal portfolio since Travolta took to the dance floor in "Pulp Fiction."
As lensed by director of photography Lance Acord, the movie is a gorgeous Tokyo travelogue, with nighttime trips into the city's somewhat eerie heart lent fragile beauty by a sleek, slick musical soundtrack. And that's really about it. "Lost in Translation" has the repetitive minimalism of an actual working vacation; genuine narrative developments can be counted on one hand. This is an actor's showcase, and as such, it says little about Coppola the filmmaker. I had to wonder at her "co-writer" credit: She's either supernaturally adept at writing Murray-esque dialogue, or his portion of this only intermittently verbal movie is so heavily improvised that naming an author is almost superfluous.
However it was arrived at, the interplay between Murray and Johansson is a thing to behold. He can't help coming off cocktail-seductive as he jokes about hatching an "escape plan" to spring them from their luxurious but stifling surroundings; she's the sexy sounding board who responds to every witticism with a wide grin, a mock-serious nod and a throaty nonanswer that subtextually implores him to keep the charm coming, please. On it goes, the flirtation reaching a pitch that's almost unbearable -- until the working vacation ends, and the movie sends us all on our way with an affectionate smack on the rump that's the only possible denouement. Off Murray and Johansson go, too, to work their snarky magic elsewhere. Now, get out of here, you crazy kids. You're knuckleheads. And I mean it.