Here's an American movie that recognizes and understands the difference between love and lust, between infatuation and love, and maybe between the different kinds of love even. To call this a "feel good" movie would be to oversimplify it greatly, because you feel so much more than good seeing it. To call it bittersweet would be to overemphasize the bitter. To call it a romance or love story would be to pave over the deepness.
Bill Murray's Bob Harris is an aging movie star, still recognized on the street, but fading a bit, maybe not getting the choice roles anymore. He's fairly jaded. Celebrity bores him. He goes to Tokyo to shoot a TV spot and some print ads for Suntory whiskey ("it's Suntory time!"), for a cool two million bucks, but Japan baffles him for the most part. The scenes with the ready-made entourage that greet him on arrival, with the commercial director and the photographer, with the uninvited call girl who arrives at his door one night, all play off the language barrier of the title theme and are laugh-out-loud funny, but they aren't throwaways. They serve the story by underlining Bob's out-of-placeness.
Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a seeker. She's cut off from her star-struck photographer husband, whose work is more interesting to him than she is. But Charlotte is more adventurous than Bob. She ventures out of the hotel and wanders Tokyo, shopping, taking trains. She is bewildered and amused by the cacophonous arcade life of the streets, but finds the shrines and little gardens enchanting. Bob is content to stay in the hotel when he's not working, channel surfing in his suite, hanging out in the hotel bar, having the occasional swim or workout.
The relationship between these two begins flirtatiously, casually. They exchange glances in the bar. They run into each other in the hotel. Eventually they converse, strike up a friendship, and Bob soon realizes that he feels alive and energized when he's around Charlotte. His sense of play and spontaneity come out of him. Charlotte enjoys Bob's company and feels he is someone she can confide in. Suddenly Tokyo is a fun place for both of them. Maybe the 30 years that separate them make it even more fun.
Here are two people whom fate has thrown together, in a strange place where seemingly anything can happen. Both are married, but Charlotte, despite her youth, is just as responsible an adult as Bob. Bob recognizes this - it's one of the reasons he's drawn to her. Bob is clearly not the type of middle-aged man who makes a habit of hitting on young women. Charlotte recognizes this - it's one of the reasons she's drawn to him. They both seem to know from the start that this is a relationship that cannot and should not go in certain directions. So there's no tension between them over that, which is nice.
Bob and Charlotte have a few brief encounters with the hotel lounge singer, who has a voice but no taste. When we first meet her she's doing a hilariously overwrought rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's delicate ballad "Scarborough Fair." She figures prominently in a terrific sequence that starts when she comes on to Bob after her set and he is (possibly) too drunk to resist. This scene is effective for what it doesn't make explicit. It cuts directly from the singer's overly friendly "Hi..." to Bob waking up the next morning, horrified at the situation he realizes he's in when he hears the singing coming from the bathroom. Next thing you know, Charlotte is at the door, wanting to know if Bob can come out and play. The scene that follows this is simply beautiful. Charlotte and Bob are at a restaurant, and it's the only tense moment between them in the picture. The beauty of it is that Charlotte's mad at Bob, not because she's jealous, but because she's disappointed in him. She softens a bit when she sees that he's disappointed in himself.
It all works primarily because Bob and Charlotte are both intelligent, warm, decent people, and because the writer/director (Sophia Coppola) structures the screenplay to show us that. By the end of the movie or sooner you feel close to both of these characters, as if you had been there, spending the week with them. This is true intimacy, which by itself might make this picture a rare jewel, but Coppola and the actors give you so much more....the humor, low-key and off-handed, is enough to make you love it. The visuals are fantastic too. Downtown Tokyo at street level looks like a cross between a video game and a thrill ride. From the windows high up in the hotel it resembles any other city full of skyscrapers, but it clearly is not New York or L.A. or any other place you know.
This is the finest American movie in perhaps ten years or more. It rivals the best work of great American directors like Altman and Scorsese. Higher praise than that I cannot give.