Bill Murray has reached a point in his career where he has that something called screen presence without actually having to act. He dozes on a couch, he shifts his gaze a centimeter or two, in an extreme moment he may actually roll his eyes. And the audience watches raptly and chuckles appreciatively. As he tries maturity on as a persona, that clown from Caddyshack and Ghostbusters has acquired something on screen that approaches real gravity. He’s been making interesting films, and maybe he has it in him to do something really audacious, like Buster Keaton in Film, but less obtuse. I hope so.
But Broken Flowers isn’t especially audacious. For one thing, it’s a Jarmusch film, and Murray makes an excellent Jarmusch character. Here, he’s Don Johnston, an IT-industry genius turned shiftless retiree. As the movie opens he’s already getting dumped by Julie Delpy (Julie Delpy!), which establishes his Don Juan credentials. The story is set in motion by the arrival of a letter, typewritten on pink paper, that’s purported to come from an ex-girlfriend. It warns that he has a son, and that said offspring is likely to have hit the road looking for him. The veracity of this claim is, shall we say, in question. But still Don sets out to visit a string of exes in an effort to gather clues about which of them might have a typewriter, pink stationery, or an absent kid.
Jarmusch’s movies can be deceptively simple. Often, they’re in no hurry to actually get anywhere in particular. That’s his style, and Jarmusch structures Broken Flowers in a way that emphasizes Don’s disengagement with the world around him. The film is bookended by depictions of Don’s home life, juxtaposing his over-the-hill stasis against his long journey into the past. The midsection is a road movie featuring a guy who really doesn’t want to be on the road — his busybody neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), arranges the trip for him. These scenes emphasize the loneliness of the long-distance driver, with Don tooling at some length down quiet suburban highways, empty subdivision streets, deserted back roads and even waking up in the middle of a cornfield.
The travel takes place in rented cars, with destinations that are ordinary suburban houses inhabited by women (the presumed flowers of the title, seen as broken relationships — or broken people? — through Don’s eyes) who evince varying degrees of sadness, loneliness and desperation. Carmen (Jessica Lange) is a pet psychic (she denies it but, yes, that seems to be exactly what she is), Dora (Frances Conroy) has forsaken her onetime hippie principles to go into real estate with her hubby and move into a prefab McMansion. One of them (Tilda Swinton, nearly unrecognizable) lives in the middle of nowhere with rednecks and holds a grudge. Only Sharon Stone as Laura, a NASCAR widow with a sexually aggressive jailbait daughter, comes across as anything resembling well-adjusted.
If Laura represents normal, then the other women represent deviations. They’re looney, or hypocritical, or just plain down on their luck. Don, meanwhile, is a cipher. There’s not much evidence in his deadpan approach to every situation that he feels much in the way of love or sympathy for these women. He sleeps with Stone, but that seems almost like something he does out of a sense of simple obligation, or opportunity, or sportsmanship (as well as a relief that her daughter has put some clothes on). He regards Dora with barely bridled distaste. He doesn’t like her career or her carrots. Carmen may as well be ridiculed outright (she’s become a dyke, to boot!).
But Broken Flowers isn’t at all a movie about women, or even about relationships between men and women. It’s about men, and the way they regard their past romantic — or, in this case, specifically sexual — exploits. In sensibility, this looking-back-on-life yarn may be the closest thing to an old man’s movie the 52-year-old Jarmusch has yet made. (At 55, Murray is only three years older.) If it’s unclear whether Don feels any real regret that he failed to make a life with any of these women, it’s clear that something inside him is excited by the prospect of having a son. The movie never comes entirely clean on that subject — whether his son actually exists or not — but the ambiguity clearly represents the regrets of a man who has no legacy, nobody to claim responsibility for, and nothing to occupy his time.
Has Don been changed by the experience? Maybe. But the film’s singlemindedness, like Murray’s solipsism, keeps it from feeling fully formed. It’s like a tasty snack that you gobble down only to find that you’ve still got the munchies 20 minutes later. Too much of the time, it seems like a vehicle for letting Murray deploy that minimalist charm at the expense of every other character in the movie, and draining it of much real feeling. (This is by no means a knock on the performances, especially those of the women, which are uniformly excellent.) The most effective sequence may also the most romantic one — it sees Don ordering a nice arrangement as he chats up a cute flower girl, before asking her directions to a nearby cemetery where yet another beautiful girl lives six feet underground. As Don sits beside her grave and delivers a loose eulogy, mourning in his own lonely way, the film’s emotional center comes into focus, just for a few moments. Death, it seems, is one predicament that really touches a nerve.