Broken Flowers

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Does it truly matter who the mother of Bill Murray’s son is in Broken Flowers? I wonder. It is, as they say, the journey, not the destination. In this deadpan comedy-drama, the second of three films Murray has made (to date) with writer-director Jim Jarmusch, Murray plays Don Johnston, who receives an enigmatic, unsigned letter from an old flame who claims she has had his son. Don, who has just watched his latest relationship with girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) circle the drain, is dyspeptic about this note. His next-door neighbor and friend, the Ethopian transplant Winston (Jeffrey Wright), is a crime-novel buff and excitedly latches onto the mystery aspect. Winston decides that Don must go visit four of his exes and find out about his son. He draws up an itinerary for Don, advises him on which clues to watch for (typewriter, pink things), and sends him on his unmerry way.

Most of Broken Flowers is a series of duets between Murray and various women; he even has a nice little moment with one of Winston’s little daughters. Jarmusch’s script is maybe a bit heavy-handed about establishing the man’s Don Juan past, right down to his name and the movie he watches on TV, although this might be a wry joke on Jarmusch’s part. There are a few more hints and signs in the movie, suggesting that this loner is part of a larger pattern. Again and again, Don finds himself in ghastly mortifying situations, forced into awkward connection and into life. The four estranged women, who all have more nervous energy than Don, represent various social classes as well as various roles of American womanhood — the widow (Sharon Stone), the professional woman (Frances Conroy), the mystic (Jessica Lange), the outcast (Tilda Swinton).

Don’s former relations to any of these women are as mysterious as anything else in the movie; Jarmusch gives us only tiny indications of what they saw in Don, or vice versa. Each of the women seems to have a chaotic inner life agitated by Don’s presence. Sharon Stone’s widow (her husband was a race-car driver) looks upon Don with the most kindness, even taking him to bed; but her daughter, fittingly named Lolita, seems to share her mother’s erotic restlessness. We can see that, past a certain point, Don’s inability to commit drove him away from the women, or them from him. He may realize he’ll be alone forever unless he can find his son, if indeed he actually has one out there somewhere.

Murray gives one of his late-period micro-performances, showing us, as usual, that what was behind his early-period jaded-hipster shtick was a melancholy and fearful man — a child, really. Murray has a gravitas in these roles that’s oddly, and often amusingly, disputed by his rather light and unresonant voice. No matter how deep his scars run in his 21st-century funny-sad/sad-funny characters, he still sounds like the same guy from Meatballs. So he seems to combine the wisdom of an elder — and he has aged to look like one — with the insecurity of youth. The result, in movies like this or Lost in Translation, is a split Bill Murray, the one in our memories versus the one we see before us, and most of the women in Broken Flowers see a split Don. They see an older Don who is still, in the ways that matter, the younger Don who saddened or enraged them.

Jarmusch burrows beneath his surface affectlessness, which he’s usually done, really; his movies are more emotional than they appear, but seem almost embarrassed to express emotion in the standard false Hollywood manner. With the great cinematographer Frederick Elmes, Jarmusch makes America beautiful but not sterile. The key to the movie and to Don Johnston might be his only friend Winston, who, in opposition to the grey and pale Don, is black and passionate and fecund (three jobs and five kids). Generally, Jarmusch sets his protagonists in contrast with someone who points towards a more soulful way of being — think of William Blake and Nobody in Dead Man, or the titular hero of Ghost Dog and the ice-cream-truck driver. Did Don ever want a family, a wife, a son? We’re not sure at the end, nor is he, but as he watches two candidates for the position of son disappear into the horizon, he seems to have grown just to the point where he realizes what’s missing.

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Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, comedy, drama, murray christmas

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