Paradise Found

'Lost in Translation' plays homage to the May-December romance with tact and sensitivity.

If there's one thing that the Rat Pack taught us, it's that young chicks dig old guys who can swing, swing, swing.

Sadly, the so-called "feminist" movement put the kibosh on celebrating the wild nights of passion that can only be shared by sultry young nymphets and their sun-damaged beaus, and nowadays, we're more likely to celebrate Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher doing their real-life remake of How Stella Got Her Groove Back than to think highly of 90-year-old billionaires who marry drug-addled Guess? jeans models and then die in testate.

So a new subtlety needed to be brought to the reverse Harold and Maude romance, something less in line with your standard James-Bond-dating-his-great-granddaughter cinema, and more in line with, oh, I don't know, how about Harold and Maude?

Without falling for the early-'70s sappiness that dates that darling film, Sofia Coppola has made what is probably the sweetest, funniest and saddest movie of the year, a strange semi-romance starring the too-talented-for-the-Oscars Bill Murray and the equally excellent and far-more-attractive Scarlett Johansson. You should not only see this movie; you should buy it and give it to Third World nations and televangelists and warring religions factions, because it's just that good.

If this was just your standard story about an older person getting kicks by doing a youngster (e.g. How Stella Got Her Groove Back), then it would be a double failure, artistically and ethically. Coppola, though, pays more attention to character than to kinky fun, and the romance, such as it is, remains essentially chaste. It's more the story of two people with big questions about their lives.

Charlotte (Johansson), having just graduated from college, can't decide what to do other than to make fun of people who aren't as smart as she is. Bob (Murray) is facing the commercialized end of his movie career and his inability to love his wife or kids or self or life.

They meet in Tokyo, where Bob is filming a scotch commercial and Charlotte is hanging out in a hotel. Her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), is a rock-and-roll photographer who hobnobs with people who are too dumb to be in Charlie's Angels and too famous to understand why. While Charlotte expresses vague disgust for her husband's Hollywood-headed friends, she spies Bob doing the middle-aged white man's equivalent of going to a rave: He's sitting at the end of a bar by himself getting drunk.

They immediately strike up a friendship born of their mutual hatred for everything that either can or cannot be spoken of. This leads them into an amazingly well-photographed sortie into the Japanese nightlife, where strip clubs and karaoke bars are hipster hangouts brimming with semi-Americanized Asians and their color-blind clothing.

Coppola perfectly syncs music and visuals here, creating a sort of slow-rock video to the tune of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain and some oddball Japanese crooner pop. As in her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, this creates more atmosphere than impetus, but it works better in Lost in Translation due to a zippier editing job and the performances of its two stars.

Bill Murray's face seems to be made of some sort of emotion-based polymer that fell to Earth from outer space, as he can convey longing, sympathy, safety and sadness all at once. This is especially powerful in a scene where he looks over at Scarlett Johansson as he does a perfectly imperfect rendition of Roxy Music's "More Than This" in a tiny karaoke booth above the insomnia of downtown Tokyo.

Johansson more than holds her own and, in spite of the fact that she was only 18 when Lost in Translation was shot, she shows the skill of someone who has survived a thousand battles with the acting demon that killed Keanu Reeves in 1987. Coppola takes advantage of the fact that her leads can convey a great deal while not saying very much and leaves out a lot of dialogue.

Nonetheless, what's there is as cunning and on the money as Halliburton's post-war business plan. Murray, of course, is known for his ability to toss off brutal one-liners with superhuman ease. Ribisi, one of the best actors of his generation (I think it's the same generation as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Justin Timberlake), does his usual high-energy shtick, and Anna Faris gets points as a campy parody of Cameron Diaz with extra ditz.

But it's the collaboration between Murray, Johansson, Coppola, cinematographer Lance Acord (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and composer Kevin Shields that creates the complete world that makes Lost in Translation so effective. While clearly a fantasy, everything works together so cohesively that you'd almost believe a 50-year-old has-been actor could experience a week of chaste love with a beautiful young intellectual cynic in an imaginary city called "Tokyo."