Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Chloë Sevigny, Mark Webber, Christopher McDonald. (2005, R, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 12, 2005
America’s most resolutely independent and reasonably successful filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, combines his skills with those of beloved comic actor Bill Murray in this ambiguous romantic comedy whose underpinnings, like most of Jarmusch’s films, are the residue of a physical and emotional journey. Broken Flowers, which won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, will probably turn out to be the most commercially successful film of Jarmusch’s career. To some extent that’s due to the film’s broad star power, although the character played by Murray is taciturn and withdrawn, in marked contrast to the smirky, wry, or goofball countenances he’s used to win over audiences in recent work. In Broken Flowers Murray plays a ladies' man named Don Johnston (his one-letter remove from an actual Hollywood Lothario being one of the movie’s running gags). During the film’s opening sequence, we witness the departure of Don’s current live-in love (Delpy) as he sits diffidently on the sofa watching Douglas Fairbanks’ swansong, The Private Life of Don Juan, on TV. So noncommittal is Don that he barely registers a reaction as he flops over on the couch from a seated to prone position. A letter arrives that intrigues his Ethiopian neighbor Winston (Wright, who provides the majority of the comedy in this romantic comedy). Typed in red ink on pink stationery, the letter is unsigned and from a former girlfriend who tells Don for the first time about their now-19-year-old son, who may be on a journey to find his father. Don offers Winston, an amateur sleuth, five possible names of who the letter-writer might be, and faster than you can say A Letter to Three Wives, Winston sends Don off with an itinerary for visiting the five old girlfriends. One by one, he appears unannounced on each woman’s doorstep, and one by one, he is received with decreasing warmth. The odyssey leads to a captivating but ambiguous conclusion that will strike some as true to life and others as perplexing. Broken Flowers is as elliptical as the haunting jazz music by Mulatu Astatke that permeates the soundtrack. The film is also a work about middle age, a first for Jarmusch, although any regret, longing, or disquietude we see in Don are projections rather than anything overtly expressed by the character himself. In fact, Don’s diffidence is so extreme that it can be hard to imagine him as a ladies’ man, or even imagine what these women once saw in him. Although I like the movie a lot, I find this one of the story’s essential flaws: I just don’t buy the idea that Don is really the character the movie tells us he is. His mojo is not all in the past either; many women in the present also find him appealing. Additionally, other small jumps in logic occur throughout that make us pause in the face of the narrative trajectory. However, any movie that provides this many roles for fantastic noningenue actresses is one to cherish for reasons that go beyond the scope of this movie. Broken Flowers manages to charm us with its encompassing fragrance, the pungency of life forces emerging from the muck.