Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the year's third superhero movie, and the last of the summer, The Wolverine finds the title character traveling to Japan to face down his demons and understand himself again. This has a tendency to happen, though it seems, oddly, to only infrequently involve the Japanese themselves.

It is not just that the good and bad exist side-by-side in Sofia Coppola's 2003 breakthrough film Lost in Translation: the good and the bad are intractably yoked, occupying the same space and growing out of the same moments in the film. A movie of the film that is equally as good without being in any way bad could exist; but it would needs be an entirely different movie almost from the ground up. Anyway, I come to praise LiT, not to bury it, and I would not give up all the good within it for something far more vexing and awful than what is bad with the film. But that is not the same thing as demonstrating that the badness does not exist.

The film, for the benefit of those who weren't around during its luminous cultural moment a decade ago, is about two well-off media types from America cooling their heels in Tokyo for a bit: Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a movie star (some dialogue suggests that he's reached the "richly deserved slowdown" phase of his career) in town to make some television and print advertisements for Suntory whisky; Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a recently married young woman who's tagged along with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) as he's on assignment shooting a Japanese band. Both of them are already largely dissatisfied with their life situation - Bob's marriage has also hit the "slowdown" phase and his conversations with his wife back in the states have the tenor of a dry, marginally acrimonious business meeting, while Charlotte is terrified that she made the wrong choice, as her husband seems interested in absolutely everything in the world besides her - and being in a place where they don't know the language on top of how immoderately different the culture is in seemingly every way has only sharpened the feeling of isolation and being locked out of life. They happen to cross paths in the bar in the Hyatt where they're both staying, and recognising a kindred soul in each other, they strike up a relationship that isn't precisely romance or friendship though it includes elements of both. What's really happening is that they've each found in the other an anchor, something real and tangible in a place that feels far more anarchic and incomprehensible than the mere word "foreign" can possibly imply, and bonding in that way at that time makes them more emotionally intimate, we suspect, than either of them has ever been in their lives.

Now, about that good and bad part. The good thing is that this stuff works: Murray and Johansson are both at their all-time career bests, with Coppola's not-yet-notorious affection for the sorrows of the affluent giving the film an excellent depth of insight into and understanding of its characters - it being Coppola's beat not merely that she sympathises with poor little rich girls because their lives resemble her own, but that, having thus sympathised with them, she is able to bring all sorts of interesting and unique insights into their suffering as humans, not as members of the elite. Certainly, Lost in Translation triumphs as a slow-burn character study, in which the two Americans are pinned against a backdrop of the inexplicable and the incomprehensible, responding in the minutest ways to the colorful but alien world around them. It is a film of static medium wide shots, with stock-still protagonists and movement in the frame violating that stillness; it is a film of reaction shots (Murray absolutely excels at projecting a sense of amused terror); it is a film of ellipsis (Charlotte remains opaque in many ways, and we come to know her emotions more than we know her, if you follow my meaning). It is a subtle film that occasionally and not always successfully stabs out overtly with its idea that here are two people who need something to cling to and find it, showing both their sense of dislocation from their normal lives and from this exotic vacation, and drawing them into one another's affections so lightly that it's impossible to say when or why or how it happens.

The bad stuff is that, as a result of being made a backdrop for these character moments, the nation of Japan and the city of Tokyo are made colorful but totally unknowable objects, and the issue here is not necessarily one of racism, or easy reductions about how everything in Japanese culture is wacky (though the talk show scene, at least, feels like a pretty cheap joke), but simply of impoverished curiosity. Coppola has, at times, made her deep understanding of a particular sphere of humanity and her apparent disinterest in anything outside of that sphere work for her; it's a necessary element of Somewhere, and perhaps the driving force of The Bling Ring, which I persist in believing to be her best movie. And it is, at least, an explicable facet of Lost in Translation, which requires an inscrutable culture to underlie its characters' sense of disassociation, but it feels kind of icky when that narrative function is ascribed to an actual society of actual people, filmed so gorgeously in Lance Acord's clear-eyed, appealingly contrasty cinematography. The characters don't have much legitimate curiosity about Japan (though Charlotte attempts to fake it), but Coppola's movie is torn apart acting as though it does, while functioning as though it's sort of turned off and superior to this whole "Japanese" thing, with the strange food, the odd video games (the joke is in the movie: guitar-shaped controllers are no longer exotic), the unfortunately comic prostitutes, the digital everything everywhere. The film tells us that it's a tone poem about Tokyo, but it doesn't really care about the city except in that it facilitates jokes that are much, much broader than anything else happening onscreen.

That's a frustration; it is not remotely a film-destroying problem. This is still primarily a character study, and it is a fantastic one, though Coppola demonstrates a few too many times that she understands Bob more than the autobiographical Charlotte and finds him more compelling; the young woman (made younger by Johansson's pointedly baby-faced, virginal performance) is never entirely clarified like we might want, and while I will go to my grave profoundly grateful for the opening close-up shot of Johansson's ass in sheer pink panties, I cannot begin to explain it on aesthetic grounds or figure out anything it's doing that doesn't boil down to the male gaze (if nothing else, the fact that the actress's head is cut off by the edge of the frame makes it hard to think of this as a non-objectifying shot), which is all the more galling in a movie by a female director.

Still, even Charlotte emerges as a captivatingly broken figure, hunting for some kind of stable life she can't describe or perceive, needing human contact as desperately as any person in a movie ever has. That, ultimately, is the reason Lost in Translation works so well: it dramatises the desire to understand and connect with another human consciousness flawlessly, using a simple aesthetic, tightly reined-in performances, and a haunting mixture of minimalism and bustle in the audio mix to craft a series of feelings projected onto its two central vessels. It's all a bit clinical, and the script needed one more draft to be entirely balanced (Murray gets all the best lines, and while the ambling feeling of the scenes is great, a couple of them probably didn't need to be included at all), but this awfully rich stuff, and the film magnificently depicts a very specific mental state too shaded and delicate for most movies to feel comfortable approaching it. It's as tiny and tender and utterly touching as chamber dramas get.