Nothing in Sofia Coppola’s first film, the arch and pretentious “The Virgin Suicides,” could prepare you for the dreamy, loose-limbed joy of “Lost in Translation,” a lovely, loopy modern-day “Brief Encounter” that has the wisdom not to push too hard or linger too long.

Bill Murray has his best role in years–perhaps his best starring part ever–as Bob Harris, a dour, middle-aged American movie star who finds himself in Tokyo to do a series of lucrative whisky commercials. A basically amiable, though condescending fellow who’s a bit depressed about his life–his occasional contacts with his wife by fax and phone exhibit some obvious tension–Bob tries his best to get by in an environment he doesn’t understand, though it’s not always easy (a sequence in which he shoots a TV commercial, communicating with the demanding director through an interpreter, is a droll delight). Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young American woman staying in the same luxury hotel, catches his eye. She’s there with her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer whose job often leaves her alone, and it becomes clear that she’s a semi-lost soul of a different sort–a young wife whose marriage isn’t quite what she expected and who doesn’t know how to put her abilities to good use. The two don’t connect for quite a while, but eventually they strike up an acquaintance and spend more and more time together. It’s hardly a romance, however–they merely enjoy one another’s company as an escape from the solitude they find themselves in, and even when they share a bed, it’s merely to watch television comfortably. The suspenseful aspect of the relationship, in fact, is whether it will progress beyond the platonic and slip into something like an affair.

Most of the incidental touches in “Lost in Translation” are right on. Coppola and cinematographer Lance Accord give the picture a slightly off-kilter, almost hallucinatory quality that suggests the characters, who have trouble sleeping, are caught in a perpetual case of jet lag. (For Murray, of course, it requires the same sort of dazed, only vaguely comprehending quality he brought to another of his best parts, in “Groundhog Day.”) The Tokyo locations are used to excellent effect, especially in the outside nighttime sequences. And while Ribisi can’t do much with the underwritten husband, Anna Faris is strong and funny as a one of his clients, a blissfully ignorant actress.

But it’s the interplay between Murray and Johansson that makes the film a treat. The actor, who’s employed his peculiarly droopy persona mostly in supporting roles in recent years, here has the opportunity to take center stage again, and makes a triumphant return. In his hands Harris is at once marvelously complex yet transparent, a perfect realization of the star beginning a downward slide into has-been status. (The only flaw is the script’s suggestion that Bob had been a big action-movie type, which hardly seems plausible.) He’s matched beautifully by Johansson; though Charlotte is a more opaque, unrealized character than Bob, the actress makes her at once sexy and sympathetic–it’s easily her subtlest work on screen to date. Both benefit from Coppola’s precise but unrushed approach, which affords them ample space to blossom while maintaining clear boundaries–a tightrope act she accomplishes with a rare maturity for a still-beginning filmmaker.

“Lost in Translation” will disappoint those who go to it looking for a knee-slapping laugh-fest in the old Murray mold. But in its understated, unforced fashion the film showcases his slyness and deadpan comic style as well as any of his previous efforts and far better than most. It’s great to be able to welcome him back to the top echelon of screen clowns again, especially in a film that, with its subdued yet skillfully amusing tone, calls on his ability to convey poignant regret as well as humorous dishevelment with equal success. This is a charming and touching picture, and a very nice surprise.