Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a popular American movie star who has arrived in Tokyo to film a Japanese whisky television commercial for a lot of money but no fulfilment. He is suffering from jet lag and finds he cannot sleep, so spends his time watching TV or drinking in the bar. Meanwhile, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the young wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who has come to Tokyo on business. She had little else to do, so accompanied him, but now she is left to her own devices for much of the day, and also has trouble sleeping. These two lonely souls notice each other in the hotel, and strike up a tentative friendship.
Written by the director Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation continues the dreamlike quality of her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, with a tale of two people brought together by circumstance who discover they have something more in common than being at a loose end in a foreign country. The scenes with Bob trying to acclimatise to Japanese culture are played for laughs, with the actor not really hiding his bemusement with sarcasm he knows the Japanese won't get, but Charlotte's adventures in the city have an almost spiritual quality as she surveys Tokyo from the window of her room, or visits a temple to uncomprehendingly watch the ceremonies held there.
It's over half an hour into the film before the two protagonists speak to each other, and before that we're invited to adopt the outlook of Bob's confusion and sense of being in an alien environment, rather than him being the alien. Some amusing sequences see his troubles in attempting to adapt to the enthusiastic ad director's instructions, minimally translated by his assistant ("Slower, with more intensity!"), or posing for a photographer who wants him to look like Roger Moore. Criticism of the film can be aimed at the cartoonish nature of these Japanese characters, but the film has more depth than a "funny foreigners" spoof - it's not exactly National Lampoon's European Vacation.
In fact, Coppola seems smitten with the place, packing in every sight you'd expect to see, whether it's amusement arcades populated with punkish kids, karaoke, strip clubs or simply the bustling streets lit with neon signs and animated billboards. Rarely has the reflective nature of driving through a city been better employed than here, underlining Bob and Charlotte's outsider status, but also their enchantment. The spaces between events - waiting in elevators, lying awake at four o'clock in the morning, watching TV with nothing better to do - have just as much impact as the events themselves here.
But this makes Bob and Charlotte's relationship more significant, especially as the other Western characters we see are so shallow, in particular a movie star friend (Anna Faris) of Charlotte's husband. The older man and the young woman see a connection in themselves, which is strengthened by their time shared together in bars, at a party, or in Bob's room, where they have a meaningful, but not too deep, conversation about their place in the world. Bob's marriage has grown stagnant (when he phones home his wife says the kids are getting used to him not being there), and Charlotte has no idea what to do with her life. When Bob sleeps with a lounge singer, he feels he's betrayed Charlotte rather than his wife. Expertly acted by both Murray and Johansson, Lost in Translation constantly threatens to become too subtle to bear its own weight, yet the nearly-but-not-quite romance at its heart is surprisingly touching.
The first American woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar, Sofia Coppola was born into a film making family, being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and she got her start in the business appearing in her father's films such as Rumblefish, Peggy Sue Got Married and, notoriously, The Godfather Part III.