Directed by Jim Jarmusch. US. 2005.
Reviewed by Jamie Garwood and Howard Schumann
It tells the story of Don Johnston (Bill Murray) who is a Don Juan recently broken up from his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) who leaves abruptly – ‘I feel like your mistress. And you’re not even married’ – and shortly after he receives a pink letter in the post stating he has a 19 year old son. With the help of his would be detective neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don sets out on a road trip around America visiting the five women he could have impregnated twenty years previously and seeks to find out which one sent him the note. All the women work in different professions, have different hair colour and live in different locations. Because he meets each one separately the film retains the episodic structure of Coffee and Cigarettes.
As the story progresses you learn to appreciate the brilliance of Bill Murray who is in a rich vein of purple currently. His deadpan performance coupled with the sparse direction of Jarmusch, lets the story and the action wash over him with the raise of an eyebrow here, the look in the other direction there, and he gets some very good laughs with the merest expression. But you realise that Murray is such a generous actor, because of his minimalism it allows the actresses to use their limited screen time to the fullest and yet allows himself to thrive opposite Wright in their dialogue scenes. Wright himself is another brilliant characterised role.
The best scene is when Don meets up with number two Dora (Frances Conroy) and her overly enthusiastic husband Ron (Christopher McDonald), which becomes a comedy of manners in which Don says very little, highlighting his limited acting style.
I first saw this back at the Cambridge Film Festival in July and the genuine excited anticipation met all the laughs full on but was equally dumbstruck by the ending, which left us as alienated as Don slowly becomes over the movie. This is because we are denied the full truth about the letter and because of Murray’s performance we have been denied a full connection with the character who is self-mocking, rich luckily and a Casanova; ordinarily he would be an idiot but because we are so withdrawn from learning any differently, we feel let down by the ending. Maybe that is the deliberate act of Jarmusch to keep his cards to his chest as this is a European style of film due to its independent spirit, the episodic narrative and lack of visual panache. Maybe that is his point, that we are alone and should make more of an effort to communicate with each other and be active. Don does learn a lot more about himself which leads to the 360 degree spin around him which disillusions him as much as us.
Whether you will find what you were looking for, or hoping for with this film, will depend on what you make of Jarmusch’s effort, although if you go for Murray you certainly will not be disappointed.
Bill Murray turns emotional deadness into an art form in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, a film that carefully calculates idiosyncrasy and takes Bill Murray's sleepwalking persona one more step into caricature. The film follows Don Johnston's (note the subtle Don Juan allusion) quest through the American hinterland to discover which of four women from his past may be the mother of a nineteen-year old son he was informed about via an anonymous pink letter and who has set out to find him.
Engineered by his neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a working class black family incongruously living next door to a millionaire, Johnston (Murray) goes on a trip with the same lack of energy that he displays at home after his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) walks out on him. During the course of the film, we learn nothing of why Don is so apathetic, how the attractive women could have fallen for him in the first place, or what he hoped to accomplish by the search. While it is true that the first step in the journey of discovery is to acknowledge the mistakes you made in the past, Jarmusch paints Don's old flames as cardboard characters with little believability so that it is unclear what mistakes were made and by whom.
He meets and delivers a bunch of pink flowers to former lovers Laura (Sharon Stone), a widow with a sexy younger daughter named Lolita (wink, wink), (Alexis Dziena), a former hippie named Dora (Frances Conroy), now a bored middle class real estate agent, Carmen (Jessica Lange), a former lawyer turned animal communicator (a really clever New Age dig) with a provocative secretary (Chloe Sevigny), and finally Penny (Tilda Swanson), an angry woman living in a trailer park protected by bikers. He finally visits the grave of a fifth lover who died. Murray greets all of them with the same calculated inertia that becomes tiresome very quickly. Much time is spent by Jarmusch showing Don in his car, Don in airports, Don looking at maps, and Don just being Don.
The only hint of aliveness comes when he runs after a young boy (Mark Webber), thinking he may be his long lost son. When he catches up with him, he buys him a sandwich and the boy of course asks him if he has any philosophical tips (what else would a boy ask a total stranger?) and Murray suggests that he should forget the past, not worry about the future, and live for the moment. Maybe he will take his own advice, maybe not, but by that time, I was way past caring. As much as I admire many films of both Bill Murray and Jim Jarmusch, Broken Flowers is a gimmicky star vehicle that holds nothing genuine in its grasp.
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