Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson contemplate their futures in Lost in Translation. (Courtesy photo)
Ships pass in the night in Sofia Coppola's gorgeous sophomore film

Bill Murray, once Hollywood's goofiest leading man, is on a roll. Although he has made serious films for many years - neither he nor Robin Williams just woke up a few years ago and decided to "go legit" - his appearances in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and now Lost in Translation have been the richest work of his career. But that's not the story here.

Director Sofia Coppola is one of the most talented newcomers around, making films whose graceful movement couldn't be farther from the awkwardness she brought to her much-maligned performance in The Godfather III. If Francis doesn't get his ass in gear, his daughter is going to make all his carping about H'wood financiers look like a coward's line. But that's not the story either.

Scarlett Johansson, the cinephile's sex symbol, is finally over 18, meaning that a million nerdy fantasies just became legal, even if they're still pathetic. More important, she is a serious actress, mature enough that here she can play a character three or four years older than she is, when every other actor her age is trying to maintain eternal adolescence. Again: not the story.

The story is Lost in Translation itself, a movie that signals fall in every good way, and should outweigh whatever disappointments the season for serious films has in store. It isn't weighed down by the baggage of its makers; it is sturdy all by itself - and simultaneously light, like a thin balsa wood table that, thanks to the smart geometry of its construction, can hold an elephant's weight.

Readers might be inclined at this point to think that Lost is only an art film, one of those '70s-leaning slices of ethereal existentialism that stares at its navel for two hours and forgets you're sitting there watching it. Not so: Lost is a good deal funnier than advance word let on; there is even a fair bit of physical comedy happening. It might not hold the interest of cineplex patrons who only walked in because Dickie Roberts was sold out - not much of a risk, granted - but it's not only for the snooty set.

If this review hasn't gotten around to the plot yet, there is a reason: Talking much about what happens beforehand would bruise the experience, and even saying that gives the impression that the plot is the point. It isn't. The point is a circumstance:

Lost in Translation
Dir. & writ. Sofia Coppola; feat. Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Akiko Takeshita (R)
Murray plays a movie star who has come to Tokyo to make a quick $2 million for endorsing a whiskey. Johansson plays the wife of a self-absorbed commercial photographer who goes with him on a business trip and spends her days alone while he works. The two are staying in the same hotel; neither is sleeping well, and during their insomniac strolls they cross paths enough times that they strike up a friendship.

That is all we're telling, folks, except that both individuals are wrestling with their lives in ways that make them hungry for meaningful interaction. They are stranded in a country whose language and pop culture are baffling, but that's just a signpost for the alienation they suffer among those who supposedly speak their language.

Coppola gives the actors a lot of rope, setting them off individually and together to wander through a strange landscape: Johansson stares out the window, Murray takes a sauna, and both of them spend too much time in the hotel bar. The silences pull viewers into the experience of traveling, and lull us into the protagonists' contemplative mood; by the time the credits roll, we feel we've been halfway around the world. Although we would love to stay, Coppola knows that the ache of leaving is in itself a thing of beauty. •