It’s not hard to imagine the characters Bill Murray playing today as the older versions of the characters he played in the 70s and 80s. The younger characters often approached the world with a detached hipness and sarcasm which at some point in their lives, after Meatballs and Ghostbusters II ended, stopped being hipness and just became distance. Don Johnston, his character in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, could easily be Stripes’ John Winger – we’re even introduced to both men as they’re being dumped by their girlfriends.
It’s this continuity of character that Bill Murray has that makes Broken Flowers work, but also what makes it difficult. There comes a point in the movie where you wonder what makes Don, who you know will respond to any situation with a deadpan silence and a quick, subtle witticism, any different from Steve Zissou. Or Herman Blume. Or Bob Harris.
Murray has been playing this role – the sad clown, the bitter and aloof lonely man – for a decade now. He’s been refining it the whole time, though, and by now he’s got it down to such a level of minimalism that he doesn’t even need to arch an eyebrow – you feel like the camera is picking up his sardonic attitude only on a cellular level. Mix that with the minimalist touch of Jarmusch and you have a very small movie, possibly a very slight movie.
Like everything else about Broken Flowers, the plot is likeably thin: Don Johnston, an aging lothario (in case you don’t pick that up from the film’s dialogue, Jarmusch has Johnston watching a Don Juan movie on TV), gets a letter telling him he has a son somewhere out there. His friend Winston (a singularly delightful Jeffrey Wright) is an amateur detective, and he sees a mystery to be solved here. Johnston narrows the possible mother down to four women he was once involved with, and Winston sends him on a trip to see them all, looking for clues as to who could have written the letter.
It’s always fascinating to revisit old loves, to see what’s changed in them and to measure yourself against those changes. It’s like revisiting your old grammar school – you look at the water fountain you once stood on tip toes to reach and now is at the middle of your thigh. In Broken Flowers we’re only getting half the story with most of these women – we only see them as they are now. But the actresses Jarmusch has gathered fill in the gaps, and they bring life to the story in a way that Murray seems reticent to do.
Sharon Stone is a widow with the lack of forethought to name her daughter Lolita. Perhaps Jarmusch is arguing that our names affect who we are, as he has Lolita make a flagrant and naked pass at Johnston. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable as a biker mama in the most frustrating segment. Was she always a wild child? What was her relationship with Don like? Of course it’s a good kind of frustration, the kind that comes when a film leaves you with something to think about.
Jessica Lange’s “pet whisperer” is oddball and off-kilter, but it’s Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy as a flower child turned real estate zombie that was my favorite performance. She’s married to Christopher McDonald, an actor whose ability to convey phoney and douchebag must be a blessing and a curse, and she is able to delicately and quietly make you understand the way that Don’s visit has damaged the psychic wall she has up around her empty and meaningless life.
Of course each of the women represent a road not taken, a life not led. Don’s defined here by what he’s not, up until the end, when he meets a young man on a journey to find his father. What does this bit mean? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide, as I guarantee the ending will cause plenty of discussion and argument as people leave the theater.
A lot’s going to be made of the fact that this is Jarmusch’s most commercial film to date. It is to an extent, but I think that this ending may be smashingly unsatisfying to the vast majority of filmgoers attending for the Bill Murray Experience. The rest of the film is agreeable, though, with a sub-Anderson dose of “quirkiness.” A viewing of this film will require that you be OK with lots of scenes of Bill Murray driving places – I think that driving might take up a third of the film’s running time.
Broken Flowers is often amusing and occasionally lovely, but never touching (alright, almost never touching. There’s a scene where Don visits the grave of an old girlfriend that has actual feeling behind it). The movie seems to have fallen victim to the same ironic detachment that it’s warning us about.
7.5 out of 10