Don Johnston: Bill Murray
Winston: Jeffrey Wright
Laura: Sharon Stone
Dora: Frances Conroy
Ron: Christopher McDonald
Carmen: Jessica Lang
Penny: Tilda Swinton
Sherry: Julie Delpy
Carmen’s assistant: Chloe Sevigny
Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Running time: 105 min. Rated R (for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use).
What a delightful movie Broken Flowers is. Rarely is a comedy so rich in character and nuance, so steeped in self-discovery. It contains another understated performance by aging comedian Bill Murray, who has hit a graceful stride in his career of late, but still retains and utilizes his comedic talents with such subtle performances as witnessed here.
Like the highly praised Lost in Translation, Murray seems to have found himself yet another perfect role in the character of Don Johnston here. “No. Not him. Johnston with a ‘T’.” Johnston is known to most of his acquaintances as a Don Juan type. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. A man of many lovers, who is going through yet another break up with his latest significant other Sherry (Julie Delpy, Before Sunset). After Sherry walks out on Don in the opening moments of the film, writer/director Jim Jarmusch treats the audience to a long contemplation of Don’s existence with extended shots of him sitting in his living room on his sofa. He barely moves. At one point he reaches for a wine glass to take a drink; then decides against it.
Don’s neighbor Winston is an Ethiopian factory worker and self-proclaimed detective, played by the underrated Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America), who springs into action when Don receives an anonymous letter from a former lover that informs him he has a 19-year old son. Don never encourages Winston to help him discover who this letter might have come from; but he accepts, under only verbal protest, any assignment Winston gives him to discover the identity of this anonymous lover. Soon Winston has sent him on a cross-country trip to meet with the four former lovers with which there could be some chance he fathered a child 19 years earlier.
Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Coffee & Cigarettes) frequently structures his films as a series of vignettes. Don’s encounters with his former lovers plays perfectly into this format of which Jarmusch is so adept. First he visits the widowed alcoholic Laura (Sharon Stone, Catwoman), whose daughter is aptly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena, ABC’s Invasion). Next on the list is the go-getter/traditionalist yuppie/former flower child who sells upper-class pre-constructed houses in “communities”, Dora (Frances Conroy, HBO’s Six Feet Under). After an exasperated morning call to Winston claiming that he is getting nowhere, Don then visits Carmen (Jessica Lang, Big Fish), whom he knew as a lawyer but has since become a self proclaimed Dr. Doolittle, an “animal communicator.” Finally, he visits the woman who may have meant the most to him, or him to her, and yet also clashed the most with his social status because her white trash background, or perhaps that is just where she ended up. Penny (Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is the only former lover with harsh words for Don.
But of course, none of these encounters are about these women and what they have become, or what they were. Everything in this film is about Don. These women are a reflection of what Don was, what he has become and not become. Even Winston only exists in Don’s life to give him purpose. Don may never have made this journey of reconciliation with his past without Winston’s meddling, but Winston never forces Don on this journey of self-discovery. That action is Don’s alone.
Even other women that he encounters on this passage reflect Don’s own inner vision of himself. A flight attendant (Meredith Patterson, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) he sits next to in the airport – he notices the ankle bracelet on her sheer-hosed legs – is a reflection of the Don Juan who still thrives in Don’s tired existence. Carmen’s assistant (Chloe Sevigny, Melinda and Melinda), with her nasty looks of disapproval and not-so-subtle dismissals, is his conscience for the gigolo-type life he has led. Lolita is the poor choices he may have made. And a flower shop girl, also aptly named Sun Green (Pell James, Uptown Girls), is the hope he has to finally find what he is looking for in a woman and in life. She arranges some flowers for Don to leave at the grave of one of the possible mothers of his child who has passed away. The deceased is not hard to interpret, representing that very unknown which is death. What if there is no answer to what Don searches for?
It is Bill Murray’s performance that transcends anything in this summary that seems like it has been done before. The material teeters on a precipice of the two forms of theatrics, drama and comedy; but Murray (and Jarmusch) cleverly keep it just this side of comedy enough to endear Don to the audience. Murray’s dry take on facial expressions allow us to see the comedy in each situation Don finds himself, but he never sinks to the depths of ridicule and the seriousness of what he is going through becomes just as important as the comedy.
I will leave it to you to discover whether Don finds the mother of his child, or even the child himself, or even whether there is a child to begin with. But by the end of the film it becomes clear that Don’s paternity is not really what his journey is about. Don is tabula rasa. He is a blank slate. It is the people he surrounds himself with that define him, and that has left him without much as he realizes his life coming to a close. Worse yet, is Don’s realization of this something he can use to change his life or will he never be able to find the love that is missing in his life – the love that comes from within him? This is a question only Don can answer.