Broken Flowers (2005)

The notion of Jim Jarmusch writing and directing a film for Bill Murray evokes the old joke about Gary Cooper and George Raft doing a scene in front of a cigar store and critics accusing the wooden Indian of overacting. No one is better at being still on screen than Murray, not moving a muscle while suggesting volumes, and no one is more prone to plonking down the camera and holding a shot to catch the moment, making this feel sometimes like a succession of still lives.

The premise is that Don Johnston (Murray), just left by his air hostess girlfriend (Julie Delpy) and accused of being an 'over-the-hill Don Juan', receives a pink, typewritten letter from an unidentified old girlfriend who claims a nineteen-year-old son he didn't know was born is out on a trip of discovery hoping to find him. A lively, happily familied neighbour (Jeffrey Wright) is necessary to prod this unresponsive character, a computer millionaire who won't have a computer in the house, into going on his own trip - locating the four possible 'suspects' (a fifth has died) and arranging his whole itinerary for him. Then, we get a series of encounters with varied former girlfriends, who are all in different places in their lives: open, sexy widow Sharon Stone - who has a pouting sexbomb daughter named Lolita (Alexis Dziena) who doesn't get the reference but parades naked in front of him - welcomes and sleeps with Don, but doesn't get needy; former hippie now poised real estate saleswoman Frances Conroy, is married to not-quite-as-clueless-as-he-seems Christopher McDonald and is closed down but not trapped; Jessica Lange has turned into a therapist who communicates with animals and seems serious and wise even as she devotes herself, with suspicious and wary assistant Chloe Sevigny in her reception room, to an utterly ridiculous profession; Tilda Swinton is shacked up with bikers in the sticks and still angry at Don, which leads to him getting thumped. Then he visits the last girl's grave and - to spoil the end - it's left ambiguous as to which if any of the women is the mother, or if the note was genuine and not a dig by Delpy or another party, or if any of the several youths loitering (mostly kid Mark Webber) is the searching son.

This shrug of open-endedness is perhaps inevitable, given that any definite answer would be limiting - as in the similarly-structured Flirting with Disaster (which seems to be an influence) for instance. Murray may well be playing this too cool - he keeps trying to disappear, not answering phones, sitting in bland landscapes or settings. The film is acute about what it's like to be in someone else's environment, and has great moments as Murray just looks at his old girlfriends' homes or workplaces, wondering what has happened to them. It could be that we're asked to read too much in place of simple absence, but all the playing is at once ambiguous and pointed. The trouble is that every scene is constructed around an opposition between 'maybe' and 'maybe not' (are Lange and Sevigny lovers? Is Conroy deliberately withholding information?) and so you wind up with a kind of shrug. As often with Jarmusch, this is perfectly cast, down to Larry Fessenden and Chris Bauer as bikers and Pell Green (face to watch) as a florist at the cemetery who might (or might not) prompt Don to see a woman as a daughter figure rather than prospective conquest. And the music - Ethiopian selections - is spot on, even if there's an impossibility about Murray shoving a single CD into different players and always getting a fresh track.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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