In Lost In Translation's most memorable scene, Bill Murray sings a karaoke version of Roxy Music's "More Than This." As a cast member of Saturday Night Live, Murray perfected the wacky-lounge-singer shtick, but there's not a trace of condescension in his rendition of a song that has become a modern standard. On the contrary, the scene derives much of its power from Murray's implicit understanding that beneath its celebratory surface, "More Than This" is achingly sad, an acknowledgement that transcendent moments fade away, while mundane ones linger on and on. That truism informs all of Lost In Translation, an audacious dramatic comedy–the second effort of The Virgin Suicides writer-director Sofia Coppola–suffused with the bittersweet melancholy that gave the similarly themed Rushmore its enduring resonance. In a role that draws equally on Murray's remarkable turn as a depressed millionaire in Rushmore and his iconic career as one of America's most beloved comic actors, Murray stars as a Bill Murray-like superstar who travels to Japan to make a quick two million bucks endorsing a brand of whiskey. Alone in a luxury hotel, he finds a kindred spirit in Scarlett Johansson, a winsome, fiercely intelligent newlywed whose husband (Giovanni Ribisi) leaves for a business trip. United in their ennui, Murray and Johansson find solace in a relationship that defies easy categorization, hovering giddily and uneasily between friendship and romance. The disorienting culture of Tokyo plays a major role in Lost In Translation: It doesn't cause the leads' alienation, but its foreignness heightens it, giving those feelings a surreal quality as it tightens Murray and Johansson's ephemeral but strong connection to each other. Like Rushmore, Lost In Translation revolves around the complicated bond between a frustrated middle-aged man, whose material riches do little to salve his emotional wounds, and a young upstart who breaks through his brittle exterior. Coppola doesn't share Wes Anderson's gift for crafting richly developed supporting characters, who tend to be as broadly drawn as her leads are exquisitely crafted. That would be a problem if Translation's leads didn't have such electric chemistry, and if Coppola didn't have such a strong mastery of tone. Gorgeously shot by Lance Acord, who makes Toyko a gaudy dreamscape that's both seductive and frightening, Lost In Translation washes away memories of Godfather III, establishing Coppola as a major filmmaker in her own right, and reconfirming Johansson and Murray as actors of startling depth and power.
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