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She calls her exquisite study in emotional and geographical dislocation Lost in Translation. But much of what’s astonishing about Sofia Coppola’s enthralling new movie is the precision, maturity, and originality with which the confident young writer-director communicates so clearly in a cinematic language all her own, conveying how it feels to find oneself temporarily unmoored from familiar surroundings and relationships. This is a movie about how bewilderingly, profoundly alive a traveler can feel far from home. It’s a movie that anchors Coppola (”The Virgin Suicides”) as an original artist. It’s also a movie that inspires Bill Murray’s greatest work yet. And coming from this devotee of ”Rushmore,” ”Groundhog Day,” and ”Caddyshack,” that’s saying a lot.
Mainstream-junk American movie star Bob Harris (Murray) meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the young wife of a hepped-up celebrity photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), in the elaborately luxurious Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. Bob, stuck in a stagnant, long-term marriage back home, is in Japan to make a quick, big paycheck by shooting a Japanese whiskey commercial; Charlotte, depressed in a new marriage to someone she already senses is wrong for her, is left to decorate the hotel room while her groovy climber husband hustles and flirts with fame and girls. (Anna Faris from the ”Scary Movie” factory nails it as a tin-pot Hollywood starlet in town.) Sleepless in a society of elaborate courtesies and a city of dizzying sensory stimulation, Bob and Charlotte, jetlagged and wired, bump up against each other in hallways and lounges. They make a connection. And, for a while, the middle-aged man unnerved by sadness and the young woman paralyzed by possibility venture out together to explore the lunar exoticism of a visitor’s Japan — temporarily, intimately found, not lost, in each other’s company.
Melancholy and longing have rarely looked so attractive — even desirable — nor has a movie with opportunities for ”Lolita”-hood been turned into so subtle, wise, and often funny a study of chance encounter. Coppola has an eye for this stuff — she gets exactly what’s crazy-appealing about the cocooned freedom of karaoke bars, or about the ridiculousness of striking movie-star poses to hawk booze. (She’s also got a sensibility that attracts simpatico production talent, including the exciting ”Adaptation” cinematographer Lance Acord, who shoots a photographic love letter to Tokyo.)
Most crucial of all, Coppola had the determination and good taste to pursue Murray until her famously hard-to-pin-down choice for leading man said yes to the role that is, perhaps to his surprise, the most vulnerable and unmannered he has ever felt comfortable enough to be. Murray handles both absurdity and sincerity lightly — in some scenes he improvises on a hot streak any comedian would kill to ride. But working opposite the embracing, restful serenity of Johansson, Murray reveals something more commanding in his repose than we have ever seen before. Trimmed to a newly muscular, rangy handsomeness and in complete rapport with his character’s hard-earned acceptance of life’s limitations, Murray turns in a great performance that, once again, gets admirers hoping for an Oscar nomination. Maybe this time, the credit due won’t get lost in translation.