starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy
written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
by Walter Chaw I think that humour is a sharply-honed defense mechanism: something ingratiating in its ability to transcend taboo and thus, through laughter, enlist others in a secret club where the only law of membership is mutual transgression. And I think that comedians--the good ones--work from a well of demons deep and dire. It's no surprise to me that Robin Williams can actually manage a human performance in Dead Again, or that Jim Carrey can be brilliant in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, since so much of comedy is knowing what's acceptable and, more importantly, what's not. More to the point, it's no surprise that Bill Murray could refashion his career from the drunken bully of "Saturday Night Live" into this aging penitent, seeking absolution from some unnameable sin forever regenerating itself like a Promethean liver. It only took a couple of decades, but Murray has finally become Somerset Maugham's pilgrim Larry Darrell (whom he played in 1984's underestimated The Razor's Edge)--true maturity having a lot to do with the understanding that it doesn't take a shake-up as seismic as WWI to turn a man to blue moods. Often the first step in an existential journey is spurred by something as simple as a realization of how big of an asshole you used to be.
It's certainly enough for Don Johnston (Murray), who, as Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers opens, is left by a lover (Julie Delpy) while reading an anonymous pink letter informing him that he sired a son nineteen years previous--and that said son is winging his way to meet his biological father. This inspires Don (and what's on his television but a Don Juan film) to embark, with the help of neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), on a road trip to seek out a few of his lamented imbroglios, all in a pre-emptive bid for legacy. Jarmusch, having already betrayed an affection for British Romanticism by naming the hero of Dead Man "William Blake" (and having Indian Nobody marvel at how he doesn't remember his poetry), trades in Blake for Byron here, taking a cue from the poet's "Don Juan" by subverting the idea of the active romantic hero. Don is at the mercy in every scenario of the women he left behind, so that by the end of his trip, he has discovered that the reason he's alone has a lot to do with his own lack of self-knowledge. Examined are sexual repression with former lover Laura (Sharon Stone), whose young daughter Lolita (Alexis Dzienza) is blissfully unaware of how she honours her namesake; ideological discordance in poor realtor Dora (Frances Conroy), who used to be a hippie; professional disappointment in discursive Carmen (Jessica Lange), once a legal eagle, now a pet whisperer; and social dissatisfaction in trailer-bound Penny (Tilda Swinton), what with her biker bodyguards and free-floating rage. Broken Flowers is subtle, almost internal in its screenplay and execution. It's wonderfully funny, unpredictable, and ineffably pacific.
Credit Murray, who isn't acting anymore as much as he's just sort of existing. He reacts minimally, delivers his lines with a slow exhalation--the very model of a modern Buster Keaton. It's why I choose to look at a handful of his films--his work with Wes Anderson, his flirtation with late happiness in Lost in Translation, and the early hints of his depths with Groundhog Day and, of course, The Razor's Edge--as a whole instead of individually. If an actor can be an auteur, Murray's making a case for himself. In Jarmusch, a guy who refers in all pretense to Ozu and Jean Eustache, who does his best to bring minimalism to a modern milieu, Murray's met his perfect mate. (Especially with Anderson beginning to reveal himself as something of a smug little prick.) Jarmusch at his best is about the journey, and I'm finding it difficult to imagine Murray anymore as anything like a destination. Broken Flowers, then, feels like a movie along the way: a piece that's only just barely complete out of context but that blossoms under a wider examination of where Murray used to be and how far he's come. It's less a value judgment than an observation of a greater conversation--an understanding that for a mature artist, the process is as important as the result. Though a piece of the puzzle as opposed to the big picture, Broken Flowers is itself a smaller piece in a larger philosophy. It's not quite Larry Darrell's journey to a mountaintop, but damned if it's not getting there. Originally published: August 5, 2005.