Broken Flowers

Broken Flowers

****

Reviewed by: The Exile

There's a sense in which every role Bill Murray has played since jumping the sketch-comedy ship has been a variation on Larry Darrell in 1984's The Razor's Edge. Somerset Maugham's famous antihero, unable to adjust to life after WWI, was a perfect match for Murray's enervated, irresolute style; and since then the actor has made a career of men in midlife crises. With his rapidly sinking features and signature detachment, he stamps his films with an aura of ineffable sadness, which no amount of humor can dispel. You can call his acting minimalist, or you can call it simply doing nothing, but either way Murray's presence these days virtually guarantees a hefty dose of psychic pain.

It also guarantees an audience. There are people going to see Broken Flowers who wouldn't know Jim Jarmusch from Jim Carrey and this has exposed the director to the largest audiences of his career. Though more accessible than Down By Law, or Mystery Train, Broken Flowers is still a far cry from mainstream (a term the director detests).

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Murray plays Don Johnston ("with a 't'!" is the movie's running gag), a wealthy retiree who made a fortune in computers and now spends his days on a vast leather couch, watching TV. The remainder of his energy is directed toward avoiding commitment, most recently to Sherry (Julie Delpy), who's exiting Don's life just as we enter it. "You're an over-the-hill Don Juan!" she flings over her shoulder, as he sits silently in his designer tracksuit, remote in hand. He's watching Alexander Korda's 1934 classic, The Private Life Of Don Juan.

Then a letter arrives, on pink notepaper, from an anonymous woman who claims to have known Don 20 years previously. Apparently, he has a 19-year-old son, who is at that moment on his way to find his daddy. Don isn't all that interested in determining the identity of the writer, but his hyperactive neighbour, Winston (a wonderful Jeffrey Wright), a keen fan of detective novels, urges him to make a list of possible candidates. Five names emerge and Winston, who thinks everyone should be as happy as his own chaotic family, tracks down addresses, prepares an itinerary and a CD of buoyant Ethiopian music and sends Don off to revisit his past.

"Take flowers," he instructs. "Pink ones."

Broken Flowers is an episodic road movie in the Jarmuschian style, which is to say unpredictable, offbeat and peppered with absurdist humour. Each of Don's visits to his old flames - all played, for once, by age-appropriate actresses - is a perfectly wrought scene of emotional confusion and subtle regret. Laura (a marvellous Sharon Stone) is a widow, whose profession - organizing other people's closets - serves as a substitute for her inability to control her nymphet daughter, the aptly-named Lolita (Alexis Dziena), who offers Don a full-frontal moment and a lollipop (Murray's stunned immobility here is priceless).

Hurriedly moving on to Dora (Frances Conroy), Don discovers a sad, ex-hippie-turned-real-estate-magnate imprisoned in a generic mansion with a hearty husband (Christopher McDonald, the master of back-slapping insincerity). Next is Carmen (a surgically altered Jessica Lange), a new-agey "animal communicator" with a fiercely protective secretary/lover (Chloe Sevigny). And visiting Penny (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), Don is shocked by her fury, her dusty trailer home and her cadre of biker bodyguards. Could any of these be the mother of his child?

Jarmusch uses these reunions to examine the economic, professional and ideological compromises we make as the idealism of youth gives way to the reality of survival, and the actors perform with touching vulnerability. The women are in charge of every scene and Murray, with his passivity and watchfulness, is their perfect foil. Though clues to the letter's author are scattered throughout the film - a rusty typewriter here, some pink paper there - they are almost beside the point. In the final scene, as the camera circles Don's weary, collapsed face, we see a profoundly altered man. The journey, which began as an amusing diversion, has become a poignant landscape of roads not taken.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2005
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Journey of self-discovery for dead-pan, retired Lothario.
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