LA Film Festival - Broken Flowers

Near the end of 'Broken Flowers,' the protagonist sits in an alley with a young man talking about what he's gleaned from life's lessons. The past is behind us, he explains in his subdued tone, we can't change that, and the future hasn't arrived yet, so that just leaves us with the present. Not exactly the sage advice one might expect from a man looking back on over 50 years of life, nor the eloquent summation and thematic explanation of life-changing lessons learned over the course of the film. Mundane aphorism that it may be, the musing is appropriately emblematic for a film that resolutely perhaps too much so lives in the present.

 

Don's (Bill Murray) latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaving him before the trip.

 

A clinic in minimalist filmmaking, the latest effort from offbeat auteur Jim Jarmusch is a road movie that's as charming and funny as it is sparse. Throwing out the usual rules of character arc and development, Jarmusch ignores the how's and why's of the past, instead layering episodic interactions to paint a present day portrait of his aging Don Juan before our very eyes.

As his latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out of his life, perennial bachelor Don Johnston (Bill Murray at his subtle best) discovers an anonymous pink letter informing him that he has a twenty-year-old son who may be looking for him. With the help and more than a little urging of his friend and neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a wannabe sleuth, Don narrows down the list to four old flames (and a deceased fifth) and departs on a cross-country trip to solve the mystery.

 

Don with Laura (Sharon Stone), the first old flame on the trip.

 

But this isn't a retrospective of past loves gone wrong or a reformed Don Juan's attempt to make amends to spurned lovers it isn't about them. Don is a reluctant traveler whose predominant trait is detachment accentuated by Murray's weary expressions and each woman is given only enough screen time to provide a glimpse of her persona, like a memory faded over time. The four women serve as a cross section of American society, and each actress accomplishes the momentous task of distilling an entire character into a fleeting snapshot. Sharon Stone balances flirtation and desperation as a recent widow who readily invites Don into her home and her bed, and Alexis Dzenia provides comic relief as her aptly named daughter Lolita.

 

The other three descend from discomfort to outright hostility, with Frances Conroy playing a real estate agent in a sterile prefab house clearly uncomfortable with Don and her hippie past, Jessica Lange as an animal communicator who barely bothers to speak with him, and a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as a biker girl who wishes him bodily harm. Small clues and cues point to each of them, leaving Don no closer to the truth than when he started.   

 

Penny (Tilda Swinton), the most confrontational of Don's past flames.

 

While the film's lack of any clear resolution will frustrate many viewers, its humor and strong cast should make it enjoyable for just about everyone. Jarmusch has a knack for drawing comedy from the quiet moments and little idiosyncrasies in life, and his easy pacing coupled with Murray's understated charm keep the film funny and intriguing throughout. Though the underlying charisma remains, the goofy energy of his youth has given way to a more somber minimalism that's perfectly suited to drama and deadpan comedy (as Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson have both discovered). Able to convey moods with nothing more than a raised eyebrow or disaffected roll of the eyes, Murray shines in the role Jarmusch wrote specifically for him. With his middle aged physique and unassuming appearance, he's an unlikely Don Juan, but the look in the eyes of his old flames is more telling than any intimation of beauty or wealth.

 

Sharing a sandwich with a kid (Mark Webber).

 

With the formative details of Don's past hidden in deliberate ambiguity and his future left to our imaginations, Jarmusch has created a character who we can only know in the present, and a quirky, amusing film for him to inhabit. A sparsely told story that can be as frustrating as it is fascinating, 'Broken Flowers' is a well acted comedy that gives us a glimpse into the life of an unknowable man, and leaves us like the women he's left behind wanting more.    

 

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