More Than This

The road unexpectedly taken in Lost in Translation

The man (Bill Murray), somewhere in the neighborhood of 50, presses his drawn face against the car window, the dancing neon of nighttime Tokyo illuminating every wrinkle and crease in his exhausted brow. His name is Bob Harris, and he is an American movie star, come to Japan—as American movie stars often do—to appear in a television commercial of the sort that he would never venture near on his home turf. Somewhere, this man has a wife and a life, both of them carrying on quite nicely, it would appear, without him. She sends carpet samples from a household renovation project via FedEx to his hotel. When he calls home, it is to be reminded that he has forgotten his son's birthday (and, judging from the sound of it, not for the first time). Of course, he could be there; he could be doing a play for scale instead of collecting a cool $2 million for endorsing a Suntory bourbon he's probably never even tasted. But he is not there. He is here. And he is lost.

The woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), is also lost. Barely into her 20s, she stares up quizzically at the SoHo photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who is supposed to be her husband, as he darts frantically about their suite, gathering up his equipment for a shoot. Can it be that this is the man that she married? Can it be that she is already married at all, at such a tender age, with so much of the world left to see and so many things yet to do? Can it be that this is really Tokyo she is staring out at from the windows of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, when by day, and from on high, it resembles almost any other major metropolitan city? Later, when she attempts to convey her confusion to a friend back in America, she will fail miserably. Besides, on the other end of the line, the friend is managing her own tumultuous existence and, despite her efforts to lend a sympathetic ear, is easily distracted. Though the year is 2003 and the world is, in so many ways, at its smallest, with cell phones and e-mail binding us inextricably to one another, we are, this extraordinary new movie reminds us, ever more diffused, ever less able to make meaningful connections.

The movie is writer-director Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, and it is the story of what happens when Bob and Charlotte cross paths, by chance, in the same hotel bar where a cover band is eternally cranking out so-bad-they're-almost-good cover versions of such apropos standards as "The Thrill Is Gone." In truth, they've spotted each other before, in the elevator, exchanged a smile even. But this is one of those hotels where familiar-looking strangers are forever sighting each other amid that strange displacement of time and place that big modern hotels can create. And surely, Bob Harris is no stranger to recognition. Even here, in this faraway locale, he cannot so much as drown his sorrows without being accosted by fans who loved him in this movie or that. Even here he cannot turn on the television in his room without seeing a younger version of himself—or turn it off without seeing his present self reflected in its darkened screen. Except that Charlotte does not know any of Bob's movies; she recognizes in him not fame, but something deeper, a kind of shared disillusionment with everything life was supposed to turn out to be but didn't. "You're probably just having a midlife crisis," she tells him in a flirtatiously offhand way, realizing—even before he does—that they are two people meeting each other at the same metaphysical point on life's escalator, albeit moving in opposite directions. He tells her, with every curious twitch of his eyebrows and blink of his eyes, just how long it has been since he related to another human being this openly and honestly (his wife included).

After a long time wondering whether or not there is, in the immortal words of Bryan Ferry, "more than this," a question that many have never asked themselves even at Bob's age, Bob and Charlotte find, in each other, a momentary answer. Like the love-struck train passengers of Before Sunrise, or the man and woman who find each other in the traffic jam of Claire Denis' recent Friday Night, they are also aware that such moments are as fleeting as they are blindsiding—that soon they will return to the lives they led before they ever met. (In their penultimate moment together, she will ask him to stay in Japan, jokingly suggesting that they start a punk band together. Would that it were so easy.) So they know they must make the most of the weekend they have together, while Charlotte's husband is off photographing a band on some distant Japanese island. And here, unexpectedly, is a movie in which making the most of a friendship does not automatically equate to sexual consummation. Rather, Bob and Charlotte bask in the random pleasure of each other's company, setting off, in Lost in Translation's most extraordinary sequence, on a midnight odyssey through Tokyo's bars and karaoke parlors—a sequence in which Tokyo comes to life onscreen in a way that it never quite has in a movie, and in which the scenes and the performances seem to be developing spontaneously right before our eyes.

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