Bill Murray is one of those actors who delight by just by showing up in a movie. He has run wild as lovable, egocentric jerks like in Stripes, Groundhog Day and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but he can also elevate roles in schlock films like Charlie’s Angels and Wild Things with his particular droll acting. And in any film where he’s featured less, I always think I could use a little more Murray. Forgoing his earlier zany antics, his movie career entered a blue period with Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. No comedian today embodies the sad-clown figure as well as Murray. His latest collaboration with indie-filmmaker Jim Jarmusch in Broken Flowers showcases him as one of most subtley dramatic actors working today.
Broken Flowers plays like a combination of his last two films: Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic. Like Translation’s Bob Harris, Murray’s character, Don Johnston, is in a rut in his life. He’s a man whose made his fortune in computers and now drifts aimlessly from one girlfriend to the next all the while excusing his similar sounding name to the Miami Vice star. Office Space used this comedic device to a greater effect with Michael Bolton but it still provides laughs here. An unaddressed pink letter arrives from a former girlfriend from 19 years prior to warn Johnston that the son he unknowingly fathered will look for him. If this sounds like the plot of Wes Anderson’s last film, you are not mistaken. Johnstons’ next door neighbor pal Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a father of four who works two jobs and finds time to be an amateur sleuth, encourages Johnston to visit the former girlfriends who could possibly be the mother of his son. Perhaps out of curiosity or plain boredom, Johnston undertakes a pilgrimage to visit four possible candidates. Each of the women treats Johnston differently and mostly harshly. Laura (Sharon Stone), a NASCAR widow and her aptly named daughter Lolita greet Don’s presence as a welcome distraction while Dora (Frances Conroy) hides frustration in her bland, childless marriage. Carmen (Jessica Lange), an animal psychiatrist, sees through Don’s ulterior motives and Penny (Tilda Swinton) reacts to Don’s reappearance with complete indignation.
Jarmusch does not attempt to soften Don with lovable quirks or traits to redeem him. His newest ex-girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) calls him a “Don Juan” but he’s really just given up. He spends hours on his couch in designer track suits watching TV with the occasional visit from Winston. Winston’s detective work on the internet provides Don with the necessary information to track down the former flames. His relationship with Don provides the most touching interaction in the film, leaving me wanting more.
Jeffrey Wright has emerged as one of the finest character actors in Hollywood and hopefully he will have a Chris Cooper-like rise to stardom. It is not readily apparent why Winston spends so much time with his morose neighbor. Perhaps he envies Don’s swinging bachelor lifestyle or maybe he just uses Don’s predicament as a diversion himself.
Broken Flowers has all the quintessential indie traits with minimal use of soundtrack, an undefined temporal structure, and an open ending. The ambiguous conclusion respects Jarmusch’s study on how our emotional interactions with people leave a lasting imprint. Don’s search becomes not so much for his son but for his past and what his life meant to the people he knew and how his behavior affected them. With tools like the internet, no one is unreachable and anyone from the past can easily be found. But what the film proves is that the past is often better left there.
Following a summer of big budget fare, Broken Flowers provides a nice change of pace to action and explosions. The film requires some patience, but it is important to see films where people express real emotion rather than spouting exposition. Murray, who was robbed by the Academy in 2004, seems bent on getting himself a little golden statue. I hope his time will come but part of me misses the Murray of old. Maybe the Tripper, Winger, Venkman, or Carl Spackler Bill Murray will return and make us laugh once again.
Archived article by Oliver Bundy