Scarlett Fever: 'Lost in Translation' Is So Funny and Melancholy That It's Hard to Pick Just One Person to Praise. OK, It's Not Really That Hard. Meet Ms. Johansson, an 18-Year-Old Who Doesn't Act Her Age

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Byline: David Ansen

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 She was preternaturally wise as an 11-year-old in "Manny & Lo"; poignant as the withdrawn, badly injured girl in "The Horse Whisperer" (The Hoarse Whisperer could describe her distinctive voice) and memorably contemptuous as an outsider in "Ghost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. …