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Guest Writer

The blessed comfort of connection
'Lost In Translation'
by Amy Nuttbrock

was house-sitting for a friend in San Francisco when I met a Swedish yoga instructor who was subletting a room in the same building.

During our month-long, overlapping vacations, I lounged on the rear balcony and rifled through old issues of Adbusters, while she wore heavy shoes and danced frenetically to MTV music videos. I satisfied cravings for curried and sautéed meats, while she exhaustively arranged meals that avoided animal byproducts. When I affectionately chased the cats down the hallway, she popped allergy pills. I wore a wide-faced watch, she let time slip endlessly.

We seemed an inappropriate pair. Yet, when we rattled around Market Street, picking at oversized burritos and sipping ginger ale, we fell exclusively into long conversations about friendship, career choices, mutual feelings of transience and the meaning of it all.

There's something special about meeting a stranger in a strange place that allows us to connect on a more intimate, metaphysical level. We all need to dissect things into meaningful bite sizes, but sometimes it's easier to have these conversations anonymously, without the familiar context. In the strangeness of a new city, this can be a welcome bond, especially for those of us who feel restless in the way only dislocation can produce.

Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" captures this connection between strangers with a breathless accuracy rarely seen in Hollywood films. The story is virtually plotless: a man and a woman meet at a hotel bar and find solace in their mutually ambivalent and dissatisfied lives. She's just out of college; he's bumping up against middle age.

We fear a classic May-December romance, but the film has better intentions.

Coppola expertly captures the pain of detachment, the resignation of her characters to do almost nothing, and the blessed comfort of connection. Her sharp attention to detail is both quirky and poignant. This is a touching, often hilarious picture of friendship that appreciates our need for the reflections people offer of themselves and the assurances we seek in each other.

Bill Murray, seemingly playing a tongue-in-cheek version of himself, is remarkable in the character of Bob Harris. As always, he optimizes his trademark slapstick, but adds an articulate and complex vulnerability that he only hinted at in "Groundhog Day," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums."

Bob is an aging movie star whose career is winding down. He's in Tokyo collecting a few million to endorse a whiskey ad.

With his bored expressions and ever-present scotch on the rocks, we get the impression that he'd rather be doing something else.

But he rolls with the punches.

We see him puzzled and gape-mouthed while receiving elaborate instruction from a manic Asian director, whose words are translated simply as: "More intensity." Bob gets roped into a wacky talk show, where he can only blink groggily at the camera. He has trouble negotiating the treadmill in his hotel.

His marriage isn't too good, either. In phone conversations with his wife, we hear an exasperated voice alternately demanding his opinions of carpet samples and chiding him as an absent father. Bob seems to be going through the motions with passive regret.

"Do I need to worry about you, Bob?" asks the wife's plaintive voice. "Only if you want to," he says.

But Coppola doesn't allow us to feel sorry for him. She offsets his emotional funk with a series of laughable sight gags and cultural misunderstandings, filtered through Bob's dry wit. My favorite: A jet-lagged Bob wrestles with a flittering hooker, who demands that he rip her stockings. "You want me to lip your stockings?" he says, bewildered. The humor comes off as gentle, comic and fun-spirited; Bob never comes off as superior to his surroundings.

Lesser known, though notable in movies like "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Ghost World," is Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte.

She's an intelligent but submerged young bride, tagging along with her publicity-photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), who leaves her sleepless and stranded in the same Tokyo hotel while he runs off to shoot hip, delirious rock stars. With no career of her own, she feels aimless and out of place in the vacuity of her life and marriage.

Coppola affectionately shoots Johansson's ephemeral beauty in a role where saying very little says a whole lot. We see Charlotte roaming Tokyo, slipping anonymously into video-game parlors, shopping districts and subway cars in an attempt to reach out for the tiniest semblance of connection.

Despite her efforts, she's left to gaze pensively over the vast, bright metropolis from her high-rise window.

She visits a Buddhist temple and, in a teary phone conversation, tells a friend, "I didn't feel anything." Then we see her standing at a moody, harassed tilt, watching her husband joke with a ditzy starlet (Anna Faris).

We understand her sarcasm when her husband scolds her for seeming dismissive. "But I'm so mean," she later tells Bob, as if explaining the aura of her inexplicable unhappiness.

I'd like to believe that we've all felt stuck in the consequences of our life decisions. This is what makes Charlotte so identifiable.

Bob and Charlotte meet as most strangers do – by repetitive exposure. They exchange tentative smiles in an elevator, they toast a jar of peanuts at the bar, they pass each other, towel-clad, on the way to the pool. What evolves is a friendship that dares to be passionately chaste without being pretentious.

They flirt. They fall together and appropriately pull away. We see them hanging out at clubs, private residences, pachinko parlors, sushi bars and a strip joint. All the while, they share private giggles and meaningful looks.

In an endearingly sweet scene, Murray breaks into Roxy Music's "More Than This" at a karaoke bar. We're reminded of his "Star Wars" theme from Saturday Night Live.

Murray is no singer, but his profound sensitivity and fawning appreciation of a pastel-wigged Charlotte is touching.

Later, Bob and Charlotte fall into those ponderous conversations that function like therapy, but without the assembly-line psychobabble. We get an aerial view of them on a wide bed, trying to deconstruct those expansive ideas that often have us wondering how we got to where we are.

"Does marriage get easier?" Charlotte asks. Then: "I just don't know what I'm supposed to be."

Charlotte rolls over to face Bob. They are silent, and we imagine their minds spinning in their own private thoughts. There is a respectful distance between them, but their emotional closeness is deep and palpable. Bob touches Charlotte's foot. "You're not hopeless," he says.

I've rarely seen a moment in film with this much intimate gravity.

But their relationship is not meant to last. They need to go their separate ways, and in doing so we hope they feel a little more validated, a little less adrift. I kept my eyes on Charlotte as she fell, surprised and relieved into Bob's hug, when he runs after her in a crowded street before heading back to America.

They kiss briefly and platonically. Then he whispers something into her ear that we're not allowed to hear. Did he tell her to look him up? That everything will be OK? That he loves her?

I looked for clues.

But as Bob walks back to his cab looking more confident and erect, and Charlotte flashes a wet, hopeful, placated little grin, I decided that it doesn't really matter.

"Lost In Translation" is a rare film that gets at something so exquisitely human that I don't mind lending the characters this bit of privacy.

In the end, the film reaches out like a warm friend. I walked out of the theater and into the rain, concrete and traffic sounds, feeling uplifted and more than a little shivery.

E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.

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