The Japanese phrase "mono no aware," is a bittersweet reference to the transience of life. It came to mind as I was watching "Lost in Translation," which is sweet and sad at the same time it is sardonic and funny. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play two lost souls rattling around a Tokyo hotel in the middle of the night, who fall into conversation about their marriages, their happiness and the meaning of it all.
These conversations can really only be held with strangers. We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale. When the talk occurs between two people who could plausibly have sex together, it gathers a special charge: you can only say "I feel like I've known you for years" to someone you have not known for years. Funny, how your spouse doesn't understand the bittersweet transience of life as well as a stranger encountered in a hotel bar. Especially if drinking is involved.
Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star in Japan to make commercials for whiskey. "Do I need to worry about you, Bob?" his wife asks over the phone. "Only if you want to," he says. She sends him urgent faxes about fabric samples. Johansson plays Charlotte, whose husband John is a photographer on assignment in Tokyo. She visits a shrine and then calls a friend in America to say, "I didn't feel anything." Then she blurts out: "I don't know who I married." She's in her early 20s, Bob's in his 50s. This is the classic set-up for a May-November romance, since in the mathematics of celebrity intergenerational dating you can take five years off the man's age for every million dollars of income. But "Lost in Translation" is too smart and thoughtful to be the kind of movie where they go to bed and we're supposed to accept that as the answer. Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed, doesn't let them off the hook that easily. They share something as personal as their feelings rather than something as generic as their genitals.
These are two wonderful performances. Bill Murray has never been better. He doesn't play "Bill Murray" or any other conventional idea of a movie star, but invents Bob Harris from the inside out, as a man both happy and sad with his life -- stuck, but resigned to being stuck. Marriage is not easy for him, and his wife's voice over the phone is on autopilot. But he loves his children. They are miracles, he confesses to Charlotte. Not his children specifically, but -- children.
He is very tired, he is doing the commercials for money and hates himself for it, he has a sense of humor and can be funny, but it's a bother. She has been married only a couple of years, but it's clear that her husband thinks she's in the way. Filled with his own importance, flattered that a starlet knows his name, he leaves her behind in the hotel room because -- how does it go? -- he'll be working, and she won't have a good time if she comes along with him.
Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" was about a couple who met years after their divorce and found themselves "in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world." That's how Bob and Charlotte seem to me. Most of the time nobody knows where they are, or cares, and their togetherness is all that keeps them both from being lost and alone. They go to karaoke bars and drug parties, pachinko parlors and, again and again, the hotel bar. They wander Tokyo, an alien metropolis to which they lack the key. They don't talk in the long literate sentences of the characters in "Before Sunrise," but in the weary understatements of those who don't have the answers.
Now from all I've said you wouldn't guess the movie is also a comedy, but it is. Basically it's a comedy of manners -- Japan's, and ours. Bob Harris goes everywhere surrounded by a cloud of white-gloved women who bow and thank him for -- allowing himself to be thanked, I guess. Then there's the director of the whiskey commercial, whose movements for some reason reminded me of Cab Calloway performing "Minnie the Moocher." And the hooker sent up to Bob's room, whose approach is melodramatic and archaic; she has obviously not studied the admirable Japanese achievements in porno. And the B-movie starlet (Anna Faris), intoxicated with her own wonderfulness.
In these scenes there are opportunities for Murray to turn up the heat under his comic persona. He doesn't. He always stays in character. He is always Bob Harris, who could be funny, who could be the life of the party, who could do impressions in the karaoke bar and play games with the director of the TV commercial, but doesn't -- because being funny is what he does for a living, and right now he is too tired and sad to do it for free. Except ... a little. That's where you see the fine-tuning of Murray's performance. In a subdued, fond way, he gives us wry faint comic gestures, as if to show what he could do, if he wanted to.
Well, I loved this movie. I loved the way Coppola and her actors negotiated the hazards of romance and comedy, taking what little they needed and depending for the rest on the truth of the characters. I loved the way Bob and Charlotte didn't solve their problems, but felt a little better anyway. I loved the moment near the end when Bob runs after Charlotte and says something in her ear, and we're not allowed to hear it.
We shouldn't be allowed to hear it. It's between them, and by this point in the movie, they've become real enough to deserve their privacy. Maybe he gave her his phone number. Or said he loved her. Or said she was a good person. Or thanked her. Or whispered, "Had we but world enough, and time..." and left her to look up the rest of it.