Being a stranger in a strange land is an ancient storytelling theme. "Lost in Translation," the new film by Sofia Coppola, isn't the most profound treatment it has ever received. But the movie is more thoughtful, touching, and funnier than almost anything else the screen has given us lately.
The main characters are two loners who wish they weren't. Bill Murray plays Bob, a Hollywood star who's flown to Tokyo for a photo shoot that rapidly becomes as tedious as it is superficial. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a lively young woman who's visiting the same city with her new husband.
That husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is an up-and-coming photographer more in love with his work than with his wife, and when he scoots away for an off-site assignment she's so lonely she can't sleep. Neither can Bob, who's bored to distraction by the mind-numbing work he's doing. They make each other's acquaintance in their hotel's bar late at night, and soon a gentle friendship blossoms between them, despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds.
Will it stay an innocent friendship, turn into an illicit affair, or vanish as unexpectedly as it began? That's hard to predict, and Ms. Coppola's savvy screenplay keeps you guessing until the end.
Not that "Lost in Translation" is a suspense story or even a conventional romantic comedy. Bob and Charlotte are responsible people, not the oversexed stereotypes so many movies try to pass off as believable characters. Both are looking within themselves - and to the people and places around them - in efforts to decide whether the lives they've chosen are really right for them.
In some ways their relationship is just a bit of fun to pass the dreary days, but it's also part of their individual quests for better understanding of the futures they're heading toward.
This is a poignant process for Charlotte, whose marriage isn't matching her hopes, and equally so for Bob, who is realizing that professional success and personal fulfillment are far from identical.
Coppola made an impressive directorial debut with "The Virgin Suicides" in 1999, showing an eye for screen storytelling even keener than that of her father - filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, of "Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" fame - in the early stages of his career. Her new film is better yet, weaving a character-driven tale energized by subtle camera work and absorbing dialogue.
She also has a knack for eliciting sharp-witted performances. It's no news that Murray is a creative comic actor, with films like "Groundhog Day" and "Rushmore" on his résumé. Here he's at his very best. So are Johansson, the supporting cast, and the city of Tokyo, which Coppola has filmed so vividly that it becomes a major character in itself.
• Rated R; contains sexuality.