Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) has written and directed a fascinating film that is less about a story than about the sights, the feelings, the moments, and the especially the connection between two Americans adrift in Tokyo.
Bill Murray plays Bob, an American movie star who is in Tokyo to make $2 million by appearing in whiskey ads. Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World), in her first adult role, plays Charlotte, an unemployed young wife who is in Tokyo with her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer who is there on assignment, taking pictures of a rock group.
Everything in Japan makes Bob and Charlotte feel out of place. Bob towers over everyone he meets. He would be befuddled by the elaborate courtesy of the whiskey company executives and odd requests of the people making the ads if only he cared about any of it. Meanwhile, his wife sends faxes and Federal Express packages with questions about decorating.
Charlotte tries staying in the hotel and she tries sightseeing. But she doesn’t know what she should be doing and she seems to have forgotten how to feel anything.
Neither Bob nor Charlotte can get to sleep, and their bleary disorientation contrasts with the sharpness and sensory overload of the sights and sounds of Tokyo. But for both of them, the sense of being out of focus goes beyond sleep deprivation. It is not just their brains that are out of focus; it is their hearts and souls as well.
Bob and Charlotte have a lot of trouble connecting to other people, literally and spiritually. They have truncated phone calls with people they clearly care about but they cannot say so. Both are in transition. Bob is a once-successful movie star whose career is tapering off. He once felt close to his wife, but her preoccupation with their home and children has created a distance between them and he does not seem to know how to talk to her or to their children. Charlotte does not seem to fit into her husband’s life of taking pictures of rock groups and movie stars. But she does not seem to fit into her own life either. She was a philosophy major at Yale, then she tried to write, but that did not work and she does not know what to do now.
Somehow, Bob and Charlotte connect to each other in a way they do not understand. But they do understand that it is precious to them to feel that way — or just to feel.
And they — and Coppola — treat that feeling with touching delicacy. She takes him to a nightclub and they sing karaoke. He takes her to the emergency room so she can get her toe x-rayed. They do not exchange life stories or discover that they loved the same poem in high school or have any of the usual movie indicators that they are soul-mates. They just understand each other a little and like each other a little more. And that is a very nice thing to observe.
The performances by Murray and Johansson are tender delights. Anna Faris (Scary Movie) is deliciously perfect as a starlet who has had too many people tell her how interesting she is. Coppola is a master of moments and details, and here they add up to a story that is beautifully bittersweet.
Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language, nudity, drinking, smoking and drug use, and sexual references and situations, including adultery.
Families who watch this movie should talk about why Bob and Charlotte were drawn to each other. What did they have in common? What was most different about them? Would you have wanted them to say something more to each other than they did?
Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate The Virgin Suicides (mature themes), also directed by Coppola and featuring Ribisi. It is flawed but shows Coppola’s exceptional ability to evoke a sense of time and place and superb music selections. They might also like to watch Brief Encounter and The April Fools.