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Lost in Translation is a rarity: a film about a purely emotional love affair.

Johansson and Murray are fish out of water, birds of a feather, and lone wolves
Johansson and Murray are fish out of water, birds of a feather, and lone wolves

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a former movie actor in a stale marriage who finds himself in another world, where he is getting $2 million to endorse a Japanese whiskey. Adrift in Tokyo alongside him is another American, dewy Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), married for four years to a hip photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who has lots of interests that don’t include her. The two lost souls find each other at their hotel bar on one sleepless night, and soon they are spending all of their evenings together.

The film is equal parts travelogue and chaste romance. They are tourists, missing much of the daily life of the city as they while away hours in the rarefied atmosphere of their hotel. They have a handful of nighttime outings with shadowy family members and Japanese hippies (a classic oxymoron if I ever heard one). Meanwhile, they rediscover themselves through each other.

Director Sofia Coppola captures the experience of traveling in an unfamiliar place with no destination. We gawk with the travelers at the shiny, primary-colored signs and Times Square-style electronic billboards. The novelty of the place brings out the novelty in the characters: free of their usual context, they discover themselves anew.

Bill Murray is wonderful as a not-quite-ugly American who doesn’t understand much of what is taking place around him but with nothing to lose makes the occasional hilarious effort at communication. Charlotte walks anonymously among the Tokyo crowds, occasionally seeking enlightenment through a visit to a shrine or a flower arranging class. Her room is littered with little things she buys on her forays out into Tokyo’s streets — wall hangings, lip gloss, cigarettes — before she scuttles back into her room and the hotel’s languid tides.

Bob and Charlotte’s world of constant jet lag and room-filling beds makes us dread the pair’s inevitable grope toward intimacy. Instead the film is an eternal first date. They share confessions, advice, and sit sweetly side by side after a big night of karaoke. They finally fall asleep at last, not in each other’s arms but in the back of a taxicab, each sprawled in their own corner.

Coppola orchestrates the story well: A good score, along with familiar and unfamiliar pop songs, complement the travelers’ emotional and physical travels. The story is simple, the characters developed in a steady but never static way.

If you could enjoy a 100-minute movie about two people who never consummate their love affair, without much of a plot but with lots of atmosphere and wry humor, you could fall in love with Lost in Translation as I have. With grace and humor, writer-director Coppola succeeds at something difficult in fiction: telling an affecting story that allows its characters to be decent people.