In this new film from indie director Jim Jarmusch, Bill Murray continues his string of roles as a sad clown whose main task is, as Murray himself describes, “looking to be alive.” A serial dater, whom his neighbor calls a Don Juan, Murray plays Don Johnston, an aging and emotionally detached retiree who struck it rich in computers. Although Broken Flowers runs out of energy and ideas in its final scenes, the film is genuinely amusing and endearing–a welcome relief from the rubbish Hollywood is churning out in this its summer of box office discontent. Complemented by a number of impressive performances, including Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, and Jessica Lange as former lovers, Murray’s performance is equal to his Oscar-nominated turn in the low-key gem, Lost in Translation.
#AD#Flowers opens with Johnston being abandoned by his latest live-in, frustrated with the paralysis-inducing impact her relationship with Johnston has had on her life; at the same time, he receives an unsigned note, on pink paper in a pink envelope, informing him that a woman he dated 20 years ago became pregnant toward the end of their relationship, had a son, and decided to keep him in the dark regarding his paternal lineage. Now, however, the son has begun his own search for his father and so the woman is writing to let Don know that he may, in the near future, encounter the grown son he never knew he had.
Johnston’s only contact with the outside world is through his friendship with a large Ethiopian family living next door to him. The father, Winston (Jeffrey Wright in a performance that makes Murray’s performance work), has three jobs but spends his free time imagining himself as a private investigator. He seizes upon the mystery letter as an opportunity to put his Internet-derived detective skills to work. When Johnston balks at the idea of trying to find out who wrote the letter, Winston tells him that he should take the note as a sign indicating the direction his life ought to take. You need to find out “which woman you impregnated with your semen.” Winston’s accent and his good-natured enthusiasm play nicely off Johnston’s insouciant indifference.
Winston manages to cajole him into producing a list of the five women with whom he was intimate during the relevant period. Then Winston goes to work, discovers that one of the five has died, finds out where the other women now live, arranges flights and rental cars, provides Mapquest directions, and burns him a new CD of Ethiopian mood music that becomes the soundtrack to the film. A skeptical Johnston asks, “what do I do when I find them?” You bring them pink flowers and tell them you’re “just checking in.” Ever the amateur sleuth, Winston adds, “and bring me their typewriters.”
Playing the lonely, jaded man of few words has become Murray’s dominant role in recent years; here he is perhaps closest to the character he played so effectively in the minimalist Lost in Translation, although Flowers is more comic. The camera lets Murray remain unmoved, as it lingers over his forlorn facial expression, whether he is sitting on his couch or driving his rental car. Prodded by Winston to embark on a quest, he remains mostly a passive recipient, someone to whom things happen, rather than someone who initiates events. Yet, Murray’s character transfixes the audience as he manages to register his response to events and snippets of dialogue through subtle bodily changes and minor facial expressions. Perhaps the best scene in the film occurs at a dinner he has with one of his former lovers, and her husband. In a scene that draws repeated laughs, Johnston says almost nothing, but provides ongoing commentary through his skeptical, bemused, or slightly horrified facial expressions.
Not long into Johnston’s journey, viewers will begin to wonder, how are they possibly going to end this thing? And the conclusion, with multiple suggestions as to what the answer to the mystery letter might be, falls flat. In this respect, Flowers is inferior to Lost in Translation, which faced a similar dilemma in its final frames, where the dramatic question concerns what do with the aging Murray’s burgeoning affection for a much younger woman. That film managed to find just the right way of framing the uncertainty, of formulating the question in concise and dramatically satisfying way. Although Broken Flowers runs out of steam, Murray’s mesmerizing performance is still enough to make this film the most captivating of the summer.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.