Aside from Alec Baldwin's Tony Bennett impression (which was so spot-on I won't hear a word against Baldwin for as long as he lives), I thought the "Saturday Night Live" 40th anniversary show was pretty much a snoozeroo. But the sight of Bill Murray's ravaged visage reminded me of the latter of his two great Oscar-worthy performances. A week ahead of this year's Academy Award winners, I thought it would be appropriate to salute an Academy Award loser for our Saturday movie date - and a loser who, on the big night, was weirdly humiliated in his loss by the Oscar host (and Bill Murray's supposed friend) Billy Crystal. Nominated in four categories, Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost In Translation won in only one - for Miss Coppola's screenplay:
The film begins with a close-up of a young lady's bottom, lying on a bed, sheathed in diaphanous panties. It is a pert and beguiling posterior, and one assumes that it's sitting there giving you the come-hither eye as the usual cinematic shorthand for sexual anticipation. But, as you settle into this marvelous picture, you realize it's about an intimacy far more intense than that. Miss Coppola's title is a pun. It refers not just to cultural dislocation – a Tokyo full of Americanisms that aren't quite right – but also to emotional upending – what happens when you take a jaded, haggard B-list celebrity and a barely-out-of-college girl and you transplant them far from the restraining contours of their daily lives.
I've a fondness for stories that have a clock on them – like On The Town, with its three sailors enjoying 24 hours in New York. Often, the artificiality of the time limit makes the drama all the more natural: because the finish is dictated by the clock, there's no need for one of those over-neat narratives in which characters undergo life-changing events and wrap them up in time for the credits. Thus, Miss Coppola's film is more a mood piece than a plot – Bob (Bill Murray) is a faded star who's getting two million bucks to do a tacky whiskey commercial in Japan; Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is several decades younger and tagging along with a hot hip photographer she probably shouldn't have married. They're holed up in the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, which is like the Park Hyatt anywhere – it has a piano bar and a pool and its very anonymity strips the environment of romance: if you can find love in the Park Hyatt, it's probably the real thing. This is a very different approach to, say, Richard Curtis (Love Actually, etc), whose middle-aged men and young totty require extremely heightened landscapes – bucolic vistas, mahogany paneling, snow-dappled Victorian mews, etc. In Miss Coppola's film, the hotel's lobbies and elevators look as bleary and jet-lagged as Bill Murray feels. Like many chain hotels in foreign capitals, it has a vaguely unreal quality, just the kind of place where a man who despises his reality might slip his moorings.
His Japanese hosts treat him like the bigshot he no longer is. At the shoot, the director asks him for Bond-like sophistication, but by that he means not Sean Connery but Roger Moore. "For relaxing times make it Suntory times," says Bob, holding up his tumbler. Not Connery cool, maybe not even Moore cool - he knows that, even if his hosts don't.
This is a lovely performance by Murray. If I had to find fault with the American reviews, I'd say that they nailed all the sad, rueful qualities in the picture but didn't draw folks' attention to quite how funny it is. Perhaps that's because Murray is scrupulous about never rising to the comedic bait, no matter how absurd the third-rate lounge-acts and self-consciously wacky TV hosts he's beached among. Until he meets Charlotte, he shuffles through the movie with impeccably deadpan eyes: he is the inscrutable Occidental. But we know he must see the comedy and the fact that he can't be bothered being funny about it somehow underlines his weariness.
Boredom brings Bob and Charlotte together. Her eyes wander during some tedious banter at her table and she catches his. They know each other instantly, as only people who don't know each other can. That's to say, they have the intimacy of strangers: they talk about the deep generalities of the big philosophical forest because all the humdrum individual trees of daily life don't crowd in like they do when you know someone well – pick the kids up at four, Sue and Roger are coming for dinner… Bob loves his wife but it's all kids and décor now. She faxes him urgent demands to know which carpet color he likes best – perhaps the only detail in the movie that feels too contrived, too crude an indicator of the way love decays into housekeeping.
Murray's performance is the Oscar bait, but Miss Johansson, just 18 years old but playing a little older, is indispensable. It's through her that we understand his loss and his longing; watching her do "Brass In Pocket" on the karaoke machine, you see what he sees, you see why her careless vivacity brings him alive. She's intelligent and naïve and confident and sweet. Maybe she's the one - or she would have been if he'd met her in 1973. Or maybe, after children and the house and a decade or two, he'd be right back where he is now. She has smart eyes and lush lips and that cute butt, which is where we came in, and by the time we see it again somehow giggling over the TV in your room while eating mini-bar snacks in T-shirt and underwear seems potentially far more dangerously intimate than a quick shag. Miss Coppola took one of the most over-mined seams in popular entertainment and somehow managed to make a bittersweet, morally serious character drama out of it. The leads and the movie should all have gotten Oscars
Bonus: The lounge singer's big number is "Midnight At The Oasis", which is just perfect.