Broken Flowers

| August 6, 2005

Apparently, director Jim Jarmusch came up with the idea for his latest film, Broken Flowers, by an intersecting of two agendas: one, he wanted to write something for Bill Murray; and two, he wanted to do something about the disheartening lack of great roles for women over 40. It is just such a cut-and-paste approach to filmmaking that often makes Jarmusch’s films–though well-crafted–feel more like exercises than movies unto themselves. His last film, Coffee & Cigarettes, for example, was not even a narrative film but rather a series of vignettes, all prominently featuring the two addictive substances. Though a few of the skits worked, the movie as a whole felt like an indulgent exercise from a pretentious director high on his own esotericism. Jarmusch films work best when he happens upon a formula that actually lends itself to the medium of feature filmmaking–he did it 20 years ago with Down By Law, and he does it again here with Broken Flowers, a film in which he and his current muse, Bill Murray, redefine understated, deadpan filmmaking to delightful effect.
The story is straightforward, and provides a more than serviceable framework on which to base a movie: just as he gets dumped by his girlfriend, aging bachelor and computer tycoon Don Johnston (and just in case you miss the Don Juan reference, Jarmusch points it out abundantly) receives an anonymous pink letter, informing him that he has a son from nearly 20 years ago who has now set out to find him. Don is ready to dismiss the letter as either a hoax or unsubstantiated claim, but his overly-investigative next-door neighbor, Winston, gets fixated on unraveling the mystery of the sender’s identity. Winston convinces Don to embark on an epic cross-country scavenger hunt, where he will revisit his old flames and find out which one of them is the mother of his heretofore unknown child.
The marriage of Murray and Jarmusch is a perfectly-matched one. Jarmusch’s minimalist, measured patience with the camera is the perfect complement to Murray’s achingly subtle expression–Jarmusch is not afraid to train the camera on Murray and leave it there for long periods of time in which nothing really happens. Because of this, Murray is able to hone the lonely, downtrodden persona he’s created of late to pure contained perfection. Jarmusch’s signature habit of book-ending his scenes with several moments of what any other director would deem as irrelevant excess gives us the sense that we’re really seeing this story play out in completion. In an era in which music video and commercial directors are the hot new talents, it’s refreshing to see a director take his time with his 105 minutes.
Jeffrey Wright as Winston leads an across-the-board stellar supporting cast. Following up work in “Angels in America” and The Manchurian Candidate (and an early career turn as Basquiat in the respected biopic of the artist), Wright’s chameleon-like talent continuously proves itself limitless time and again, and he and Murray share an exceptional, quirky chemistry. Sharon Stone, Francis Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton play the four ex-flames, and all are entirely believable as former free-spirited, self-assured young women who would have caught young Don’s eye back in the day. (Say what you want about the man’s promiscuities, but the fact that he went for tough, sexy women over decorative ditzes is a testament to his manhood, in my book.) Conroy in particular stands out among the four, and Christopher McDonald as her husband/real estate partner is a treat, as always. Cinematography by longtime Jarmusch and David Lynch collaborator, Frederick Elmes (Kinsey; The Ice Storm), is seamlessly crafted, giving the film a look that when combined with the similar mid-life-crisis-on-the-road subject matter cannot help but remind one of last year’s sublime Sideways, but perhaps in slow-mo. Original music by Mulatu Astatke completes the package with off-kilter perfection.

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