Broken Flowers (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Broken Flowers shows the kind of offbeat spin that a quirky independent director like Jim Jarmusch can put on a Hollywood standby: the road picture. Using equal parts understated drama and comedy, Jarmusch takes us on a trip through the present to remind us that the past is gone and roads not taken can never be explored. Those who like tidy endings and demand a sense of closure will leave the film frustrated. It tells a story, but there's no resolution, nor is one needed. In the end, solving Broken Flowers' mysteries becomes an irrelevancy when considering where the journey has taken us.

It's interesting to examine the trajectory of Bill Murray's career. The comedian began his motion picture life as someone who headlined mainstream motion pictures like Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Groundhog Day. Of late, however, Murray has graduated from Hollywood projects to independent ones (some would claim he's going the wrong way down a one-way street). Fundamentally, Murray's style hasn't changed - he's still as laid-back and laconic as ever, and he hasn't lost the capacity to make us laugh - but he no longer toils for big checks. Instead, he has stepped out of the spotlight and offered his talents to auteurs like Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson.

In Broken Flowers, Murray plays Don Johnston (much is made of the fact that his last name contains a "t"), an over-the-hill Don Juan whose past is littered with the flotsam of shipwrecked relationships. His current live-in girlfriend, Shelly (Julie Delpy), is walking out on him because she feels like his mistress - and he's not married. After her departure, Don sits around "enjoying" retired life (he made a fortune "in computers") - which means falling asleep on the couch while watching movies on his big-screen plasma TV. He's the ultimate couch potato. Then The Letter arrives.

It's in a pink envelope and is typed in red ink. There's no return address and no signature. The Letter informs Don that he has a 19-year old son who may come looking for him. With the help of his neighbor, detective fiction writer Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don narrows the field of possible mothers to four: Laura (Sharon Stone), Dora (Frances Conroy), Carmen (Jessica Lange), and Penny (Tilda Swinton). Armed with plane tickets, car and hotel registrations, and an itinerary - all provided by Winston - Don begins his multi-state odyssey. Along the way, he will be flashed by a young girl, punched in the face, forced to converse with a woman who talks to animals, and have dinner with a couple whose lack of intimacy creates a discomfort zone.

Broken Flowers is Murray's movie. No one else has more than a few scenes. The second-most screen time belongs to Jeffrey Wright, who's around for about 10 minutes. Julie Delpy and Tilda Swinton are barely on camera long enough to be recognized. So, although the cast is impressive, don't expect to spend time getting to know anyone except Murray's Don. For the lead actor, the role doesn't require a stretch of his talents. Jarmusch knows Murray's strengths, and has tailored the part to them. So we have a character much like Lost in Translation's Bob - he's acerbic and doesn't show much emotion, but there are moments when we catch a glimpse of inner vulnerability.

Jarmusch has his own way of pacing the movie. In another director's hands, this might have been a wacky farce, but, although the director doesn't sacrifice all of the humor, he keeps the tone reflective. Broken Flowers is about a middle-aged man trying to confront a past that he perhaps regrets. One mistake a viewer could make is assuming this is a mystery. Anyone who falls into that trap will be disappointed. The questions that propel Don on his journey of self-discovery - "Do I have a son?" and "If I do, who is the mother?" - are left unanswered. They are, in the language of mysteries, red herrings, doing little more than provide a convenient reason for Don to get off his couch and begin his reluctant trip down memory lane.

Jarmusch is not a mainstream director, and he has never pretended to be. Some in the indie world regard him as a pioneer and a demi-god. The French especially love him. This may in fact be his most accessible film to date. It has enough heart and humor to reach those who don't always appreciate art films, and Bill Murray's star power won't hurt at the box office. Broken Flowers isn't perfect - some of the scenes run too long and a portion of the audience will be bothered by the lack of closure (although this is by no means Jarmusch's version of Limbo) - but in the wasteland of August releases, this entry shines like a beacon lighting the way to a theater.

Broken Flowers (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1