Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Julie Delpy, Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange
A good, almost great, movie, Broken Flowers suffers from two problems: Jim Jarmusch's apparent need to be terminally hip and calculatedly quirky, and the belief that shots of Bill Murray staring blankly are endlessly profound. Problem is that Jarmusch probably is hip and quirky, and he would seem even more so if his films didn't too often feel like he was trying too hard to be sure you noticed. And while Murray's trademark deadpan stare is one of his most effective tools as an actor, it works better when used more sparingly than it is here.
The only filmmaker to date to fully tap into Murray's talents is Wes Anderson in his film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou -- a fact that's forcefully brought home in Broken Flowers. In both The Life Aquatic and Broken Flowers, Murray has to deal with a possible son he never knew about. Anderson's approach is quite different and transcends anything Jarmusch accomplishes with his film.
But what Jarmusch does accomplish -- at least up to his indie-er-than-thou ending -- is not to be sneezed at. The film's opening brilliantly sets the tone, based on what Murray's Don Johnston is watching on TV. It's Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Don Juan, a 1934 film that relates to what we're about to see.
Not only are the names similar; so are the characters. Murray's Don Johnston (that's Johnston with a "t," as he keeps having to remind people) is an aging womanizer just as is Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Don Juan. In the Korda film, Don Juan is living off his notoriety as a great lover, and when he pretends that Don Juan is dead and he's someone else, he soon finds his old allure was in name only. This neatly dovetails with Jarmusch's film, which explores the idea of Don Johnston wandering through the wreckage of his past to find out which of four old girlfriends might be the mother of his son.
Moreover, Don Juan was the swansong for over-the-hill star Fairbanks, which adds another dimension, with Murray as both actor and person coming to terms with his own advancing age.
This much is very fine, as is the entire setup with his latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy, Before Sunset), who's leaving him at the same moment as he receives a mysterious, unsigned letter from an old girlfriend informing him that he has a son and that that son might be looking for him. So divorced from his feelings is Don that it takes the prodding of his quirky next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright, The Manchurian Candidate), an Internet junkie with fantasies of being a detective, to get Don to even take an interest in this possibility.
Winston asks Don to make a list of possible mothers, which Don claims not to be doing even while he's doing it. Winston pushes Don every step of the way -- tracking the women down, planning his itinerary, even lining up Don's rental cars ("Couldn't you get me something I could really drive, like a Porsche?" complains Don. "I'm a stalker in a Taurus."). One of the best things about Broken Flowers is the pairing of Murray and Wright, who have a natural screen chemistry that helps hold the film in place.
The bulk of the movie involves Don's encounters with his old girlfriends -- Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton -- but there's something more here. Don also encounters an array of younger women along the way, and these women, as well as his reaction to them, are just as telling as anything involving his actual exes. The depth of these secondary encounters is subtle, yet profound -- again, much in the way that casting Fairbanks as Don Juan had been 60-plus years ago.
Despite a certain uneven and occasionally meandering quality to the film, Broken Flowers never loses its punch in this regard. The business with the possible son is less well-achieved, though it has its moments, especially in the scene where Don doesn't pursue the possible answer to the question when he arrives at a street sign reading, "Do Not Enter."
If the actual finale doesn't entirely work, neither does it damage the film, merely making Broken Flowers feel more art-house standard than really satisfying. All the same, Jarmusch's latest is so often so near greatness that it's a must-see for filmgoers with an eye for something more challenging than the standard multiplex fare. Rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke