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Murray finds himself ‘Lost in Translation’

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LOST IN TRANSLATION — *** 1/2 — Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Catherine Lambert, Fumihiro Hayashi; rated R (vulgarity, brief nudity, brief sex); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.

With "Lost in Translation," director Sofia Coppola makes a serious bid to claim her last name for herself. Not an easy task when her famous father is Francis Ford Coppola, director of "The Godfather" films, "Apocalypse Now," etc.

Who knows if her own prowess will catch up to her father's? But Sofia Coppola can at least take solace in the knowledge that she has her own cinematic voice after just two movies.

This thoughtful comedy-drama is even more assured and complete than her first film, the literate 1999 adaptation of "The Virgin Suicides."

"Lost in Translation" is a lovely little tone-poem, full of anguish and sadness, as well as some rather surprising beauty, warmth and humor. It also gives star Bill Murray the type of role that may finally shut up all those nay-sayers who pooh-pooh anyone and anything ever associated with TV's "Saturday Night Live."

Murray's performance here is the kind that Oscars are made for . . . even if, by February, Academy voters forget about his sad-faced turn as Bob Harris, a once-popular American movie star in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Bob is in Tokyo, where he's busy shooting liquor ads. He's bored — and not just by his current work. The life has gone out of his marriage and he finds himself communicating with his wife largely by fax or phone.

Meanwhile, young Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), another American in Japan, finds herself in similar circumstances. Her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is off shooting assignments all around the country, and she has been left alone and bored in her hotel room.

So when these two meet at the hotel, each feels obvious relief at finding a kindred soul. But as they try to find ways to amuse themselves in this foreign land, they find there may be something more to their relationship.

There have been accusations of racism leveled against "Lost in Translation," but such claims are groundless. Scenes involving a ditsy American movie star (Anna Faris) demonstrate that U.S. pop culture can be every bit as substance-free as Japanese pop culture.

The film's ending may strike audiences as a little frustrating (it's deliberately vague, but it's definitely in keeping with Coppola's somewhat poetic tone for the film).

If anyone ever decides to make a movie about Robert Mitchum's final days, Murray will definitely be the man for the part. (The resemblances here are, at times, uncanny.) And the still teenage Johansson's turn may not carry the same emotional heft as Murray's, but it is her best performance to date. (They even manage to subvert the potential ick-factor associated with pairing the much-older actor with the much-younger actress.)

"Lost in Translation" is rated R for vulgar sexual talk (overheard in song lyrics), lewd dancing and brief nudity (both in a strip-club scene), and some brief sexual contact. Running time: 105 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com