Broken Flowers

August, 2005, Comedy

Directed by:Jim Jarmusch

Starring:Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Mark Webber, Chloë Sevigny, Christopher McDonald, and Alexis Dziena

At the end of an unusually dismal summer for Hollywood films comes this mordantly humorous study of male self-absorption/alienation from the gifted but often inscrutable independent director James Jarmusch, (Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, Dead Man). To audiences grown overly accustomed to the split-second timing of so many mainstream American movies, a Jarmusch film can seem tedious; the director’s willingness to remain fixed on a character’s expression long after dialogue has been delivered, his injection of seemingly banal location shots and his deliberate insertion of what appears to be quite extraneous material often causes more impatient audiences to complain that he just doesn’t “get on with it”. But for those who can slow down the hyperkinetic pace of their lives for a couple of hours, a Jarmusch movie can offer both bracing insight and Zen-like composure. What it won’t provide is anything even remotely conventional, even in a story populated with mainstream stars like Bill Murray, Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange.

Flowers opens with a departure; businessman Don Johnston (Murray) dejectedly lounges on his living room sofa while Sherry, (Julie Delpy) the latest in a long line of girlfriends, walks out on him because he’s incapable of offering her any meaningful role in his life. As she departs, a mysterious letter arrives, telling Johnston that he’s fathered a son twenty years earlier who’s now on the road trying to connect with his Dad. Unfortunately for Johnston, the letter is unsigned and carries a postmark so indistinct it can’t be accurately traced.

Urged on by his happily married next door neighbor, Johnston creates a list of his lady loves from two decades past, researches them on the Internet to locate their present locations and sets off to discover which one of them is the mother of his only child. In the course of these wanderings, Don will re-encounter Laura, (Stone) a blowsy divorcee with an oversexed teenage daughter, Dora, (Frances Conroy) former flower-child turned real estate developer, Carmen, (Lange) an ex-lawyer who now channels the thoughts of pets and trailer trash Penny, (Tilda Swinton) whose fierce rejection of Don causes him no small amount of physical punishment. In each case, the audience learns something about Johnston he either never knew about himself or had long since forgotten; risk taking, a sense of adventure, sensitivity to the needs of another - - each of these gets reflected in the all-absorbing passivity of Johnston, a 50-ish bachelor who remains as detached after his brief meetings with these earlier intimacies as his so obviously is from Sherry, his latest one.

Murray’s deadpan expression, (coupled with the supreme skill he employs in delivering lines suggesting that an agile mind lurks behind that butterscotch-pudding expression on his face) extends the persona first introduced in Rushmore and brought to maturity in Lost In Translation; it may be a narrow niche for an actor, but Murray delivers on it to perfection. His leading ladies match his ability; each in her tiny vignette evokes a distinct personality, hinting at lives as rich, sorrowful and varied as Johnston’s has been empty and egoistic. Have they been any happier than the man each had loved so many years before? Jarmusch allows his audience to decide that, along with the question of whether anyone in this deftly-observed quartet is the mother of his child.

The director establishes his patented mood with spot-on dialogue, (he authored the script) beautiful performances and some of the most intriguing camerawork to be found in any film thus far this year; an early sunrise captured behind the fallow fields of a hardscrabble farm, Murray’s deflated, curled form complimenting the branches of the tree under which he sits in an old cemetery, the framing of a homogenized urban America caught over Murray’s shoulder as he opens the sliding doors of a suburban hotel room; in each case, Jarmusch once again provides evidence of the skills which have made him such a favorite of film critics since in his first movie over 20 years ago.

A critical favorite perhaps, but never a popular one; this movie, like the earlier entries in the Jarmusch oeuvre, is destined to be enjoyed by relatively small audiences, those who have become aficionados of a gifted but often off-putting American original. See it only if you have the patience to be drawn into this languid examination of an American success story who’s as baffled about himself at the end of his journey as he was at its beginning. 


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