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IN SHORT: Forty fabulous Murray minutes does not a film make. [Rated R for some sexual content. 102 minutes]
Bill Murray has the remarkable ability to make "nothing" funny. Hysterically funny. He does the best deadpan since Buster Keaton's silent era heyday in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which will mean nothing to most people. Perhaps the mention of Keaton will get anyone who plotzes over this film to seek out the masterworks of the silent film star, just collected on DVD. Murray's improvisations are legendary. All his work in Tootsie, for example, was unscripted. In Lost in Translation, unfortunately, there is little he can do with a to-be-developed relationship between his character and a left-behind-in-the-hotel-newlywed character to hold our attention.
For thirty or forty minutes, Murray's portrayal of an over the hill movie star bewildered in Japan is a hysterical stranger in a strange land story. At forty minutes, Lost in Translation would be a killer short film. Something one of the cable movie channels could play the hell out of. The problem is that there's another hour of motion picture to fill and it's filled with a co-star whose character has got all the personality of a dead fish.
It's hard enough to build up any kind of relationship when that relationship is about a pair of jet lagged out of their skulls characters on either end of the biological spectrum -- yeah, this one is platonic but that can work, too, -- something in the mix has got to click to justify the ten bucks. Very little does in a movie that feels more improvised than formally scripted.
Murray plays Bob Harris, a big time movie star who peaked back in the 1970's. His wife of many years, Lydia, stays at home with the kids. Needing cash like many other Hollywood stars, he's come to Japan to shoot an ad for a brand of Japaese whiskey ("It's Santori Time!") for use in Japan only. Two days work will net him two million dollars. Aside from the fact that downtown Tokyo is a neon firestorm of symbols that he cannot read and language that he cannot understand, Harris is jet-lagged to the max and cannot sleep. He spends a lot of those should-be-in-bed hours in the hotel bar, with a lot of similarly lagged travelers.
Usually in the bar is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), whose rock star photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is out shooting rock stars. Harris' marriage is well worn. Charlotte's is supposed to be relatively new and fresh, which is evident from Ribisi's side, but Charlotte is jet lagged as well and that means dead fish. Harris finds himself stuck in Tokyo for many more days than he wants as he has to wait around to do a teevee spot for the "Japanese Johnny Carson" and, seeing Charlotte's face in the bar every night, they eventually strike up an acquaintance. They fight Tokyo traffic. They party with her friends. They navigate pachinko parlors and see some of the seamier side of Nippon nightlife. Sorry, folks. It's all post card stuff: "Temples of Kyoto are lovely w/o tourists. Tokyo is an insane blast of color. Met a movie star. Wish you were here"
As the sleepless days and nights drag on the pair find themselves more and more in each others company. At least Ms. Coppola doesn't go the "starry eyed fan falls for the world weary star" route (big thanks all around) but what remains is uninteresting. Lost in Translation carries its bags around like the guys in LA who sell maps to stars' houses. There are some legendary personages in Tokyo and at least one is seen here -- "Charlie Brown," for example, is famed for his karaoke rendition of the Sex pistols' God Save the Queen. There's another (fictional) bit of a rising actress (Anna Farris) doing a press junket for a movie she's made "with Keanu" and a Japanese talk show host (we don't know if he's real or fiction but suspect the former) who has got to be seen to be believed.
Japan is a very strange place. Coppola's movie has all the feel of a guerrilla special ops team who go in to film all the color possible and then drop Bill Murray into the mix to come up with something to make it all fit together. Johannson doesn't seem to have the improv chops to match Murray and her scripted action doesn't give her much to play with other than acting jet lagged.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Lost in Translation, he would have paid . . .
It's too bad. There's a nugget here, but it's fools gold. Rent.
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