In "Japanese Story," the Australian actress Toni Collette plays a geologist who is most in her element on the bumpy back roads of the outback. Her character, Sandy Edwards, is a tough bird and very nearly a national cliche: She's outspoken, nobody's fool, and probably able to drink all other countries' representatives under the table. That's intentional: Sue Brooks's film sets up a clash of cultural stereotypes, then melts them away in a wash of unexpected love. It works pretty well until the film falls into a sinkhole of art-house entropy. If nothing else, it's nice to see Collette play something other than an emotional basket case. (She has fallen apart, spectacularly, in "The Sixth Sense," "About a Boy," and "Shaft.") Sandy is a no-nonsense type working on mining software with her partner (Matthew Dyktynski) when she is called to baby-sit a young Japanese client in the field. The executive, Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), speaks little English; Sandy speaks no Japanese. He's glued to his cellphone, loves karaoke, and has apparently never been beyond his Tokyo backyard. He's a walking cartoon, in other words -- all of Australia's assumptions and anxieties about the Land of the Rising Sun in one frustrating package.
Under his urging, Tachibana and Sandy head deep into the Pilbara of western Australia, a gorgeous desert moonscape whose colors and angles are lushly captured by Ian Baker's cinematography. Their Range Rover gets stuck in a bog several hundred miles from anywhere, and beyond cellphone networks to boot. Their survival at issue, they are reduced to two people at the end of the world, and they do what all people in such situations do -- in the movies, at least.
The middle sections of "Japanese Story" unfold with a lovely delicacy, as Sandy and Tachibana wander back toward civilization with the dumbstruck ardor of lovers who have shared something no one else has. Collette's watchful cat-eyes and masculine bulk play nicely against Tsunashima's feminine poise; for a brief spell they seem an odd but effective match.
Then Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson throw a curveball of a twist that affects everything in the film: tone, pace, performance, meaning. In its wake, there's nothing for Collette to do but act up a storm. The actress samples every emotion from the actors' buffet, and goes back for seconds and even thirds. It's a performance that builds to a pitch of achingly sympathetic devastation, even as the movie slows to a crawl.
Cultural stereotypes descend once more: Perhaps it's intentional that Tachibana's wife (Yumiko Tanaka) turns out to be a meek china doll, the better to show how Sandy now stands outside such judgments, but it still plays as a shallow gloss.
In its final minutes, "Japanese Story" shoots for a stoic emotional grandeur that it just hasn't earned, and the precious momentum Brooks has achieved flows away like sand. Ultimately the movie is a mawkish fusion of Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout" and the recent "Lost in Translation," with cultural politics even more problematic than those Sofia Coppola danced about in her film.
"Story" is best taken as a dazzling showcase for Collette, an actress who fits none of Hollywood's ideas of glamour or artistry, yet who grows like a beautiful outback weed with each new role she takes.
("Japanese Story": **1/2.)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.