Like so many things made in Japan, Sofia Coppola’s new film is smaller and less costly than its standard American counterpart while at the same time superior in most important respects.
Bill Murray may wind up nominated this year for his heart rendingly nuanced portrait of a middle aged movie star looking for a way out of the rut his life and work have become. The actor gives the most affecting, finely calibrated performance of his career in the role of Bob Harris, a veteran of too many dumb blockbusters who knows he should be off doing a play somewhere but, instead, has opted to make a quick two million shooting a whiskey commercial in Tokyo.
Jet lagged, jaded and dislocated both geographically and emotionally, Murray finds himself marooned in an ultraluxury hotel. Unable to sleep, he pays midnight visits to the bar, a comical pseudo western refuge in which American tourists ask him about his movies, a clueless lounge singer belts out soft rock oldies and, on more than one occasion, Scarlett Johansson, is observed looking equally displaced.
The “Ghost World” star plays the young wife of a celebrity photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who seems to be disappearing before her eyes. The time she spends alone in her hotel room waiting for his life to intersect with hers seems to expand with each new day. Eventually she realizes she must choose between total, round the clock abandonment and making something out of the trip on her own.
One sleepless night the two find themselves elbow to elbow at the bar. They test each other out with a few quips and wisecracks and get a bit of a background. Despite the difference in their ages and their stations in life, it’s clear Murray and Johansson are kindred spirits. The question is, given the differences, what sort of relationship can they have and, given the constraints of time, what exactly would be the point in having it?
Over the course of the next few days they cultivate an alliance unlike any I can recall encountering in a movie before–part conspiracy, part mutual rescue, part romance-though Coppola is far too subtle a storyteller for their romantic feelings to find expression in the usual way.
Very few of the usual movie things result from their teaming up as a matter of fact. With minimal fanfare or blabby self examination, the odd couple hooks up and strikes out drinking in the psychedelic nightscape and belting out Pretenders and Brian Ferry tunes in a karaoke bar. Coppola’s script is a treasure of small moments and observations. In fact there really are two movies going on at the same time here. One chronicles the blossoming of an offbeat friendship. The other showcases Murray, the comic icon, puts the spotlight on him alone and produces virtually all of the picture’s big laughs.
While his most subdued to date, it’s a performance that encompasses everything from physical comedy to inspired improvisation. In more than a few scenes, the actor detonates explosive laughter with little more than a facial expression. Deservedly, a great deal of the press Coppola’s film has gotten has focused on the superb quality of her writing and direction. For my money, though, the triumph is Murray’s. There isn’t another American screen actor who could have given this performance, not one who so deftly could have navigated the razor’s edge separating the wiseacre and the wise.
Coppola and Johansson are relative newcomers from whom wonderful things are certain to keep coming. What’s more amazing: A quarter century into his constantly evolving career, Bill Murray has never stopped showing promise.
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