Lanky maestros of minimalist deadpan, Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray somehow never got together until 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes, wherein the actor drank straight from the pot in the erudite company of RZA and GZA. Stoic and decaffeinated, Murray’s in every scene of the bittersweet
Broken Flowers, a Jarmuschian bouquet of episodic structure, desultory road-tripping, and droll dislocation, each comic
setup as simple and plywood-dry a contraption
Our hero is Don Johnston (Murray), a name that’s no doubt saddled him with 20 years of Miami Vice
jokes and perhaps a predisposition for womanizing. On her way out of his life, latest ex Sherry (Julie Delpy)
calls him “an over-the-hill Don Juan,” an assessment seconded by Don’s energetic next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright). Jarmusch spells out the protagonist’s mythic resonances with uncharacteristic force, but as in Byron’s epic poem, this Don Juan is a surprisingly passive conquistador. A premature retiree, rumpled and doleful in
his tracksuit, Don barely reacts when he receives an anonymous letter informing him of the son he never knew he had, who’s now grown and in search of his father.
With Don semi-catatonic on the couch, it’s up to Winston, an aficionado of detective fiction, to track down four of the five maternal candidates (one has died) and map out his buddy’s itinerary. Pink flowers in his hand and Mulatu Astatke on his CD player, Don reunites with Laura (Sharon Stone), recent widow of a race car driver who met a fiery end, but not before her vampy teen daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena) sheds her bathrobe and offers Don a popsicle. Paying a house call on next-try Dora (Frances Conroy), Don stumbles into what looks like the same prefab manse where
James Spader’s semi-reformed cad dropped anchor in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Carmen (Jessica Lange) is a self-possessed “animal communicator” with an impressive new-age office and a death-glaring receptionist (Chloö Sevigny). By the time Don reaches
the junkyard spread where final contestant Penny (Tilda Swinton, utterly squandered)
resides and he falls afoul of some dentally challenged, mullet-coiffed motorcyclists,
Broken Flowers has taken a decisive turn onto the Alexander Payne Turnpike, a move first suggested by the snickering close-ups of Laura’s NASCAR memorabilia. The cutesy snark of the set design overlays Jarmusch’s typically skeletal economy of exposition, nudging the director’s laconic approach to characterization into faintly cartoonish one-dimensionality.
Once he’s ogled the aptly named Lolita, watched raptly as a miniskirted Sevigny absentmindedly scratches her upper thigh, and gotten a Band-Aid and a chat from a lovely young woman at a florist’s shop, it’s clear Don’s confronting not only the middle-aged incarnations of past conquests but the nubile ghosts of all the girls he’s loved before. Indeed, he saves his warmest greeting for the lover who’s dead and buried. Don’s rainy graveyard interlude is as close to overt pathos as
Broken Flowers comes, but with elegant restraint the film subtly intimates the wintry dead end—twilight years bereft of love, partner, or vocation—that may be in store for its aged lover man. (Payne’s
About Schmidt did too, when not gorging snidely on idiot Americana.)
After this and The Life Aquatic, Murray is a case study in the Kuleshov effect: Some may see a soulful master class in subliminal melancholy; others will watch him coast on the depressive-midlifer autopilot he programmed for Wes Anderson. At least the somber stillness of his visage is a matter of choice, which can’t be said for a couple of the female performers here, who don the plastic surgeon’s ghoulish mask of Botox, collagen, eye lifts, and cheekbone implants. As Bill Murray—whose doughy, timeworn features can be a film’s subject and motor—plays opposite beautiful actresses who’ve peeled, ironed, and sanded away the histories inscribed on their faces,
Broken Flowers inadvertently provides a handy case study of a Hollywood double standard, one so pervasive it can even encroach upon a film by the most beloved and trusty of true-blue independents.