Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Broken Flowers (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 27, 2006

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch/starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy/Universal Home Video

An aging lothario is informed that he has a son, and visits several of his former girlfriends to try to discover the identity of the mother.

It’s pretty much old news by now that Jarmusch films are an acquired taste. From his early days as a pioneer of ‘80’s indie cinema, the words “quirky” and “odd” have often been used to describe his work. So I won’t belabor those clichés in this review, because that would be pointless. I will say that he’s one of those guys who definitely has his own particular sensibilities, and you either respond to that or you don’t. The same could be said of just about every interesting director working today, but Jarmusch films in particular have a reputation of being too “offbeat” for mainstream moviegoers. I’ve never quite understood how that makes him any different from, say, the Coen brothers, who have received tons of acclaim and even scored a few mainstream breakthroughs over the years (as well as the idol-worship of virtually every working Hollywood actor). Whatever. The point is, the guy has stood just on the fringes of the business for a long time now.

So it’s no surprise that his latest film, Broken Flowers, has been interpreted by some as Jarmusch’s bid for mainstream acceptance. After all, there are some pretty big names in it, and it seems to contain a rather conventional narrative. It’s definitely more accessible to the average filmgoer than such works as Down by Law or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. But there’s some definite weirdness going on around the edges here, as well as a sly sense of humor that should be familiar to longtime fans of his work.

Flowers concerns itself with the unfortunately named Don Johnston (Murray), a fiftyish bachelor whose current girlfriend (Delpy) is leaving him because “he doesn’t know what he wants”. Don is puzzled by this vague statement, but he accepts it with the stoicism of a man who’s heard it many times before. Not long after this, he receives an anonymous letter from a past love, who informs him that he has a 19-year-old son he never knew about. He’s reluctant about pursuing the matter any further, but his neighbor (Wright), a would-be amateur detective, tracks down some of his exes on the Internet and insists that Don visit them to find out which one is the mother.

The rest of the movie details Don’s road trip and the various surreal encounters he has with his former flames, as well as their families and co-workers. There’s Laura (Sharon Stone), who’s now a racing widow with a teenage daughter named Lolita (Invasion’s Alexis Dziena, who’s got a disarmingly casual nude scene here); Dora (Conroy), a flower child turned suburbanite; Carmen (Lange), an ex-lawyer who’s now an animal therapist with a suspiciously protective secretary (Chloe Sevingy); and Penny (Swinton), a tough, bitter woman living on some sort of biker commune.

Each woman has a different reaction to Don suddenly reappearing in their lives – some are welcoming and gracious, others are visibly irritated and upset. Meanwhile, as Don revisits them, he gets a glimpse into the lives he could have had with each one, if he had made a different choice in the past. At the same time, Don is experiencing a longing to have a child that he’s never had before, to the point that he wonders whether every young man he sees on his trip is actually his own son.

It’s Don’s existential crisis that is the real focus of Broken Flowers, not the mystery of his son’s paternity or even whether or not he actually has a son. Jarmusch purposely leaves this open to interpretation, which may frustrate some viewers, but then the whole point isn’t whether or not Don finds an answer – it’s that he’s finally asking the question. Not that Don’s life as it stands seems particularly awful to this viewer, but it’s clear that he could have had more, and is just now starting to regret that he didn’t take it.

If laconic comic god Murray (he’s “A god”, not “THE god”) seems an unlikely actor to play a “Don Juan” type, that perception isn’t particularly helped by Jarmusch’s choice to have him spend much of the movie staring blankly into space. Yes, he’s naturally in shock at the news that he’s a father, but initially it’s hard not to feel like we’ve already seen this performance done better in Lost in Translation. Yet there are moments where a bit of the old charming, quick-witted Murray shines through, and that’s where we see what the younger Don must have been like. It’s a deceptively simple piece of acting, one where you can project just about anything onto that age-weathered face, and the key is in trying to read between the lines. Unlike Clint Eastwood, who speaks volumes with just one look, Murray’s placidity forces us to imagine what he must be thinking, which makes Don a more interesting character than simply telegraphing every emotion. This seems to make Murray the perfect star for Jarmusch, who typically refuses to spell out anything for the audience. It’s as if both actor and director are simply shrugging their collective shoulders and saying, “hey, we don’t know. YOU figure it out.”

Murray is matched here by a terrific supporting cast, led by the underrated Wright as the curious neighbor. Stone is surprisingly likable and loose here, as is Conroy, who’s best known for playing the horrendously uptight and hypersensitive mother on Six Feet Under. I especially would’ve liked to see more of Lange, as she essentially shares just one scene with Murray in which she’s guarded but fascinating, and I really wondered what exactly was going on with her. Plus I’ve had a crush on Jessica Lange since I first saw the ’76 King Kong on TV as a kid, so there’s that. Swinton and Delpy are given even less to do, but they both make vivid impressions.

Broken Flowers is ultimately not a film for those who like to have all the answers wrapped up in a nice, neat little bow. It’s a movie that occasionally takes weird digressions to nowhere in particular, and seems perfectly okay with that. If you don’t mind the occasional rest stop, and you don’t particularly care if you actually arrive at the designated destination or not, then this is absolutely a trip you should take.

The DVD extras are relatively short and, in appropriately Jarmusch fashion, obscure and inscrutable. You get your outtakes, your extended scene, your behind the scenes and an interview with Jarmusch. But none of them are presented in anything resembling straightforwardness. As always, Jarmusch makes you work for it, and you somehow wind up glad you made the effort.

***1/2 1/27/06

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