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Lost in Translation

SLEEPLESS IN TOKYO

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Land sharks notwithstanding, Chevy Chase's greatest gift to popular culture is Bill Murray.

When Chase left Saturday Night Live in the middle of its second season, Murray replaced him, and in the 25 years since, in movies like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Rushmore, Tootsie and Groundhog Day, Murray has created his own museum of outrageous, sardonic, disgusting, endearing and comically plaintive characters. He's even played Polonius, Shakespeare's most edifying fatality, while Chase some day will doubtless be eulogized for going on vacation.

In writer/director Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, her first film since her impressive debut with The Virgin Suicides, Murray plays Bob Harris, a well-known American actor who's in Japan, he explains, "getting paid $2 million to endorse a whiskey when I could be doing a play." He's bored and lonely when he's not indifferent, and so is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a newly minted Yale philosophy grad who lolls about her hotel room while her young husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer, works on a series of fast-track projects.

After a few false starts, Bob and Charlotte become friends, furtively at first, and then with some degree of relief to have found kindred spirits. Each is at an existential crossroads -- Charlotte because of a disappointing new marriage, Bob because of a well-worn old one -- and like all good lost souls in a static and ponderous art film, neither articulates very much as they socialize around Tokyo, which Coppola films like a giant video game dressed up in neon, consumption and speed.

Where Coppola adapted her screenplay for The Virgin Suicides from a novel, she wrote Lost in Translation from scratch, and she mostly fills time with metaphysical trivialities and existential clichés. She doesn't really seem to know her characters, so she presents them as character types who say generic things, except for a few sparks of wisdom and paradox that you sense Murray ad-libbed. The movie's Japanese people especially seem like ciphers who keep yammering comically when it's clear that the ugly Americans don't understand a word.

Coppola defines Bob's and Charlotte's malaise by having them watch La Dolce Vita on TV in the middle of the night, and with a somber ennui that seems unsuited to someone raised in Hollywood privilege. She isn't helped by Johansson's arid acting. There's a bit too much fruitless navel-gazing here, and Coppola's brother, Roman, skewered the family bread 'n' butter (their dad is Francis Ford) more effectively in his amusing debut film, CQ.

That leaves us with Murray, who savors Bob Harris' mellifluous melancholy like a razor's edge. Here and there in Lost in Translation, with a droll aside, Murray slips into someone more comfortable. But most of the time his forlorn actor could be Everyman -- working hard, wearing out, and searching for his next reason not to give up.

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