Scarlett Fever

Actors are taught early on to praise their director in interviews, but Scarlett Johansson, star of Sofia Coppola's quietly enchanted comedy "Lost in Translation," must've skipped that lesson. Asked what she thought of Coppola's first film, "The Virgin Suicides," the 18-year-old Johansson pauses. "Um." Another pause. "Well, it's hard to do an adaptation of a book, especially that one. I wasn't crazy about 'Virgin Suicides.' I think 'Lost in Translation' is a much more mature film for Sofia." Finally, an actress who saves her acting for the movies.

Johansson's unvarnished answer makes sense: she's always radiated a throaty gravity and projected a blunt honesty on screen. She was preternaturally wise as an 11-year-old in "Manny & Lo"; poignant as the withdrawn, badly injured girl in "The Horse Whisperer" (The Hoarse Whisperer could describe her distinctive voice) and memorably contemptuous as an outsider in "Ghost World," alongside Thora Birch. Though the native New Yorker has been performing since her off-Broadway debut at the age of 8, the camera never catches her Acting. She gives the impression of having arrived fully formed. She just is--like a noun that doesn't need an adjective.

If you've missed Johansson so far, it's because she's never slummed in the typical roles: "You mean a girl with some social handicap who becomes a cheerleader and marries the prom king? The thing is, I have no obligation to be in movies I don't want to be in. And playing somebody who's completely vapid is not interesting to me. After 'The Horse Whisperer' came out, there was this huge craze for snuff movies about kids killing each other. I thought, 'I'm in high school, I don't need to support myself, I'm gonna wait until something better comes along'."

Something did. In Coppola's "Lost in Translation," Johansson finally takes center stage and becomes an adult. Holding her own with Bill Murray at his most inspired, she plays Charlotte, a smart but lost young woman who has accompanied her hip photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to Tokyo. When her workaholic husband leaves her behind for an out-of-town shoot, she's a stranger adrift in an alien land. In the lounge of a coolly modern luxury hotel, she crosses paths with another jet-lagged, deracinated American, the famous actor Bob Harris (Murray), who's come to Japan to shoot a whisky commercial for a cool $2 million. Their brief, wondrous encounter is the soul of this subtle, funny, melancholy film.

There's a big age difference between Charlotte and Bob, but both find themselves stuck in their lives, at loose ends and drawn to each other for solace. He's in mid-life crisis, his marriage in a rut, his career slipping. His ironic flippancy can barely conceal his embarrassment at finding him--self an overpaid hawker of hard liquor. Charlotte, who studied philosophy at Yale, doesn't know what to do with her life; she's beginning to feel like an appendage to her husband's career. Both discombobulated by a foreign culture, they begin their sweet, ambiguous dance. Is it a paternal relationship or an erotic one? Is this a love story, or something just to the left of it? Part of what makes this movie so special is its delicate blurring of conventional boundaries.

And Johansson is right about her director. With this film it becomes clear that Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker with eyes all her own. You could see her lyrical potential in the ambitious but diffuse "Suicides," based on Jeffrey Eugenides's deliberately centerless novel. Here, working from her own original script, her focus is unwavering, her touch light but precise. The beauty of "Lost in Translation" is in its exquisitely captured details. Coppola is a warm, meticulous observer, with an intimate style that's the polar opposite of her famous father, Francis Ford. He's grand opera. This is chamber music.

Fans of great Bill Murray moments, meanwhile, will count the filming of the whisky commercial among his classic comic scenes. His mortifying appearance on a Japanese talk show with "Japan's Johnny Carson" runs a close second. But the laughs Murray gets always serve the character. This role--which Coppola wrote with him in mind--shows us aspects of the actor we haven't seen before, even in "Rushmore": moments when he emerges from his shell of irony emotionally naked. He's never been better, and part of the credit goes to Johansson. They're oddly but perfectly matched. Her directness opens him up, pierces his solitude, softens him. Their connection is what this small, unforgettable movie is about: a transient, magical, restorative meeting of souls.

The chemistry between them had to ignite in filming as it does in the story: on the spot. "We didn't have time to work on it, really," Johansson says. "We met and literally started filming the next day. But it wasn't really important to establish anything, because the characters meet in Tokyo just like we did. They have their awkward moment and go from there. I remember the first time I met him, I thought, 'Wow, that's Bill Murray. He looks like Bill Murray. He talks like Bill Murray. It is Bill Murray!' It was like meeting Cal Ripken or something."

For Johansson, "Lost in Translation"--and speaking of lost in translation, Cal Ripken?--is the beginning of what looks to be a breakthrough year. She's already winning raves at film festivals for her next, "Girl With a Pearl Earring," in which she plays Vermeer's intoxicating maid--and muse. Her husky voice and no-nonsense style are well on their way to becoming indelible.