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While her previous pic was based on a novel, "Translation" comes from Coppola's original screenplay, which has a refreshingly loose, quasi-improvised quality. Reportedly written with Murray in mind, the film is superbly tailored to the actor's signature brand of wit and deadpan delivery. Murray's nuanced, unshowy turn here stands alongside his work in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," both of which were similar illustrations of a director deftly harnessing the comic thesp's distinctive personality as well as his largely untapped capacity to convey pathos.
The central relationship is explored from the contrasting perspectives of a woman in her early 20s and a middle-aged maneach afflicted by different yet parallel doubts about the course their life respectively is taking or has taken. Bob Harris (Murray) is a movie star in Tokyo to shoot a lucrative whisky commercial. Charlotte (Johansson) is a Yale philosophy graduate in town with her celebrity photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). While Bob endures the indignities of spouting inane ad dialogue and being steered through joyless promotional engagements, he contemplates his faded career and stagnant marriage.
But the film is very much Murray's vehicle and it's hard to imagine anyone else filling his shoes so well. The actor is equally amusing making the audience complicit as he gently mocks Japanese ceremoniousness or the communication warp of speaking through an interpreter or in more physical comedy such as a scene with a deluxe-kink hooker. And his karaoke rendition of Bryan Ferry's "More Than This" is sublime. In her second film, Coppola consolidates the impression of her promising debut that she's a filmmaker confidently forging her own style, quite distinct from and seemingly uninfluenced by that of her father.
The director's love and fascination for Japan are evident in every frame, from the neon-jungle aspect of Tokyo's congested streets to the occasional departures into the calm of its gardens and temples. The free-flowing narrative style is enhanced by Lance Acord's loose, agile camerawork, by Sarah Flack's smooth editing and by a melodic electronic score, which like "The Virgin Suicides," is again overseen by Brian Reitzell and includes contributions from French ambient-pop duo Air.