Stranger Than Paramour

Jarmusch's Don Juan courts the big questions in 'Broken Flowers'

For reasons that I imagine are inexplicable to them, Bill Murray and Jim Jarmusch--respectively the star and director of Broken Flowers--are regarded as avatars of cool. Unlike Sofia Coppola, who, in Lost in Translation, reframed Murray so that his homely hipster charm could be appreciated by her own generation, Jarmusch approaches his star as one middle-aged proponent of the less-is-more aesthetic to another, taking his inspiration from the panicky "Who am I and why am I here?" existentialism that lurks behind Murray's near-catatonic demeanor. The result is a droll and unexpectedly endearing comedy--which, if you are of a certain age (like the star, director, and most of the supporting cast), might make you muse about how fast the time has gone.

Murray plays Don Johnston, a former Lothario who made a fortune in computers and now spends most of his time lying on his sofa in a blue funk. Make that a seafoam funk: Seafoam--that subtle blend of blue, gray, and green--is the dominant color of the movie, perhaps because it works so well with pink; and pink, as we soon discover, figures crucially in the plot of Broken Flowers. On the very day that Don's girlfriend (Julie Delpy), fetchingly attired in a hot-pink suit, bids him goodbye for good, he receives a letter, typed on pink stationary, informing him that the 19-year-old son he is unaware of having fathered may be looking for him. Don dismisses the letter as a practical joke, but Winston (Jeffrey Wright), his Ethiopian next-door neighbor--a happy husband and father of five--understands that although Don may not realize it, he longs to have a family. Why else would he be drawn to Winston's boisterous, affectionate household?

Present tense: Bill Murray in 'Broken Flowers'
Focus Features
Present tense: Bill Murray in 'Broken Flowers'

With Winston's encouragement, Don comes up with a list of five women who might be the mother of his son, if indeed such a son exists. Winston, an amateur sleuth, supplies him with their current addresses, a travel itinerary, and some World Beat CDs to accompany his journey. That this reputed Don Juan could remember the names of five women he bedded 20 years ago is pretty unlikely, but no more so than the notion that a guy who looks and behaves like Bill Murray could have been a successful Don Juan. It is in the tiny window between the implausible and the impossible that Broken Flowers, like all of Jarmusch's films, operates. Murray and Wright apply themselves to this oddball premise with the intensity and imaginativeness of children playing dress-up: Combining raffish spontaneity and impeccable comic timing, their interactions are among the greatest pleasures in the movie.

Traveling by plane and rented car, supposedly all over the U.S. (though anyone familiar with the landscape and roadway design of upstate New York and neighboring parts of New England will put the farthest point at no more than about 150 miles), Don pays unexpected visits to four of his former girlfriends, keeping his eyes sharp for clues that might connect one of them to the mysterious letter. The first, played by Sharon Stone, is now a NASCAR widow with a 15-year-old daughter named Lolita (Alexis Dziena). "Lo" behaves exactly like her namesake, or at least like Kubrick's version of her namesake--the joke being that she's unaware of the existence of the movie, let alone of Nabokov's novel.

Stone and Jessica Lange as an "animal communicator" make the most of their blast-from-the-past scenes with Murray, while the two other possible letter writers--Frances Conroy as a married real estate agent who lives in one of her model homes and Tilda Swinton (almost unrecognizable in a black goth wig) as a biker's old lady--aren't onscreen long enough to make much of an impression. Time has been no kinder to these women than to their former lover. We see the changes in them through Don's eyes, but our own movie memories figure in the process. One of the things Don confronts on his journey is his mortality, and Broken Flowers, droll though it is, leaves us with a whiff of our own. (At one point, the thought crossed my mind that while pink may be the signifier of girlishness, it is also the color of breast cancer awareness ribbons.) Which is why it's fitting that Don pays a visit to the fifth woman on his list, even though, having been dead for five years, she is in no position to be writing letters. Sitting beside her grave, Don has a moment of pure feeling, which Murray plays beautifully and with great discretion. Jarmusch would not have it otherwise.

Don's journey is structured rather like a treasure hunt. Instructed by Winston to look for clues, he finds them everywhere--in the basketball hoop outside each woman's house, the rusted pink typewriter in the biker chick's yard, and so forth. Each time Don finds a clue, Jarmusch, following his line of sight, zeros in on the significant object in close-up. Following Don's lead, we may find ourselves searching for clues--in the image projected before our eyes. The pleasure of Broken Flowers has everything to do with the way it focuses our attention and nudges us into the present moment. That's why this viewer left the theater feeling a lot better than when she went in.

 
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