In the enticingly poetic opening of writer-director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, fading movie star Bob Harris arrives in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial for Japanese television. Through the windows of his limo, the actor (Bill Murray) witnesses a nocturnal fantasia of vivid neon reminiscent of the Las Vegas nightscapes in another hyperstylized Coppola picture, Francis Ford’s vastly underrated One From the Heart. Upon arriving at his luxurious hotel, the jet-lagged Harris manages to get a few hours of sleep before being whisked off to a studio where, in a dryly funny sequence, he struggles to follow the instructions of a director and crew whose language he’s unable to comprehend.

In a rich, restrained, and refreshingly untwinkling performance, Murray captures the predicament of a man in the grip of both culture shock and a midlife crisis. With his career in decline, Harris has reluctantly accepted a lucrative offer to peddle booze in a foreign market. His weary response to faxes, phone calls, and FedExed carpet samples from his wife back home indicates that his marriage has also lost its spark.

Unlike the more enigmatic narrative of Coppola’s previous feature, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation’s screenplay is skimpily schematic. Harris gets a life-affirming recharge through a chance encounter with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young Yale philosophy graduate accompanying her photographer husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), to Japan to cover the production of an American movie. Languishing in Harris’ hotel while her shallow, workaholic spouse fulfills his assignment, and harboring doubts about the status of her own marriage, Charlotte strikes up a cross-generational friendship with the actor. Although their relationship never culminates in a full-blown love affair, the time they spend together exploring the diversions and mysteries of a foreign culture is transformative.

Or so Coppola would have us believe. Clearly, the templates for Lost in Translation are the ’50s Hollywood romantic comedies in which vivacious gamine Audrey Hepburn quickened the waning pulses of worldly, jaded actors twice her age—Humphrey Bogart (Sabrina), Gary Cooper (Love in the Afternoon), and Fred Astaire (Funny Face). Johansson, unfortunately, lacks everything that made Hepburn an enchanting sprite. Slack-jawed, dull-eyed, gauzy-voiced, and emotionally inert, she slogs through her role, as disastrously miscast as the director herself was as a Mafia princess in The Godfather: Part III. A zestful actress such as Reese Witherspoon or Christina Ricci could have convincingly enlivened both Harris and the movie, but the absence of chemistry between Johansson and Murray saps Lost in Translation of its considerable potential.

Although Ribisi’s performance is nearly as listless as Johansson’s, Lost in Translation affords several incidental pleasures apart from Murray’s Oscar-worthy turn. Anna Faris adds some welcome comic energy as the dippy but good-natured star of the movie John is documenting, and cinematographer Lance Acord’s images of Tokyo and Kyoto are consistently striking. A few sequences, such as Harris’ befuddled guest spot on a television talk show run by a wacked-out host, briefly enliven the prevailing tedium of what has become Coppola’s signature style: a dreaminess that smears all too easily into complete detachment. Overall, though, Lost in Translation, co-executive-produced by the writer-director’s father and his longtime associate Fred Roos, offers little more than another good argument against nepotism.

Virtually wordless, the first half-hour of Russian writer-director Alexander Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo withholds some crucial information. Where and when the film is set, for starters: A young man in uniform is shackled, chained to a rock, and abandoned in a remote forest. While struggling to escape, he observes another uniformed man, apparently a prisoner, being transported by his captors. Their vehicle is bombed by a brace of airplanes, with only the captive surviving.

Rogozhkin subsequently clarifies this sequence. The setting is a forest in Lapland in September 1944, shortly before the Axis-allied Finland’s surrender. The chained young man is Veiko (Ville Haapasalo), a Finnish sniper condemned by his compatriots for being a pacifist. They’ve punished him by forcing him to don a Nazi uniform, knowing that the invading Russians have been instructed to shoot Germans on sight. The other soldier is Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), a Russian army captain accused of anti-Soviet sympathies en route to a court martial. Russian planes mistakenly strafe the transport conveying him, unwittingly liberating him.

Both men are taken in by Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), an impoverished Lapp reindeer farmer whose husband, conscripted by Finnish authorities, has been missing for four years. Despite existing on the margins of survival in a wooden hut, Anni manages to feed and care for both strangers, and the remainder of the film depicts the growing bonds and sexual rivalries among this unlikely trio.

After its bleak, rather perplexing opening, The Cuckoo modulates into a elemental dramatic comedy, a sort of Lappish Jules and Jim. The intriguing conceit that drives Rogozhkin’s screenplay is that none of the characters speak the same language: Middle-aged Ivan assumes, on the basis of the uniform, that Veiko is an enemy German soldier. Veiko, unable to communicate with the older man, is powerless to defuse Ivan’s animosity. Anni, denied sexual companionship for so long, couldn’t care less about the strangers’ languages, politics, or nationalities. She’s just excited by the unanticipated proximity of men.

Rogozhkin’s small cast performs admirably. Haapasalo’s robust, smooth-faced Veiko tellingly counterbalances Bychkov’s drawn, aging Ivan. As the movie unfolds, Juuso, reminiscent of the youthful Liv Ullmann, blossoms from a burdened, stoic survivor to an earthily enticing woman whose drab deerskin garb fails to conceal her compassionate sensuality.

The Cuckoo disappoints only in the final reel, when one of the men is critically wounded and Anni attempts to use pagan magic to save him. Pretentiously symbolic, the episode intercuts Anni’s ministrations with Bergman-derived images of an emblematic figure garbed in white luring him to death. Capped by a coyly ironic epilogue, it weakens but hardly ruins a work of compelling poetic realism. CP

More from WCP