|Bill Murray||Don Johnston|
|Directed by||Jim Jarmusch|
With their world-weary mantles of minimalism, Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray are a match made in one of the bleaker neighborhoods of heaven. The director ("Stranger Than Paradise", "Coffee and Cigarettes") and the actor ("Lost in Translation") share an inclination toward the less-is-more school of expression. It is not a school that appeals to everyone, but there can be a meditative, hypnotic charm to it. Murray plays an aging Don Juan who has made a bundle in computers and is now enjoying the fruits of a comfortable retirement. His name is Don Johnston, a double-elbowed dig in the ribs as it plays on the associations with Don Juan and the heartthrob of the ?80s TV series "Miami Vice". In truth, the character needs this tandem buttressing, because there is very little in Don Johnston that suggests irresistibility to women.
Indeed, as the movie opens, he is in the process of losing one. As he sits catatonically watching "The Private Life of Don Juan" on his plasma TV screen, his live-in girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) announces she?s moving out. ?I don?t want to be with an over-the-hill Don Juan any more,? she tells him, and then adds, a bit inscrutably, ?I feel like your mistress, and you?re not even married.? The mild upset that this departure causes is quickly upstaged by the arrival of an anonymous letter, typed in red ink on pink paper, from an old girlfriend. The unsigned letter informs Don that their union twenty years ago produced a son, and that the son may be looking for him.
Don?s neighbor, an Ethiopian immigrant named Winston (Jeffrey Wright), is an enthusiastic amateur sleuth, and he prods the lethargic Don into undertaking a road trip to find out who sent the letter. Working from Don?s reluctantly-compiled list of five women he can remember who could be candidates in the appropriate time frame, Winston whips together a travel package of plane tickets, car rentals, and Mapquest directions, and even burns a CD of mystery themes for the car. He coaches Don in strategy (?Take them pink flowers?), drives him to the airport, puts him on a plane, and trusts to momentum for the rest. The rest is a limited story of self-discovery as Don visits a narrow section of his romantic past. The five women who could possibly be the mother of his nineteen-year-old son represent, presumably, a tiny patch of his sexual grazing over a long career of loving and leaving. The most we and he are likely to learn is a bit of what he was about in one twelve-month period two decades ago.
The women receive him with diminishing levels of enthusiasm. The first, Laura (Sharon Stone), is a widow who organizes closets for a living. She greets him with a sunny smile, a home cooked meal, and the pleasures of her bed -- not to mention a nymphet daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), who seems to have even fewer inhibitions than her mother, and who falls into approximately the right time frame to be Don?s progeny. The next on his list is Dora (Frances Conroy of "Six Feet Under"), who has left behind earthmother hippiedom for an uptight career selling upscale prefab houses. She has a husband (Christopher McDonald) who fits the new lifestyle, and she is painfully uncomfortable being reminded of the old one. The third old flame is Carmen (Jessica Lange), who has become a successful ?animal communicator?, and has apparently switched her sexual allegiance in favor of her protective receptionist (Chloe Sevigny.) The fourth is the angry white trash Penny (a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton), who has him manhandled by her redneck husband. The last of the women is the least welcoming of all, but she has a good excuse.
The women in a sense are a single multifaceted character, and they are wonderfully played by a tag team of talented actresses. But the movie belongs, for better or for worse, to Murray, whose taciturn character could have been loaded in directly from the set of "Lost in Translation" (a role which earned Murray an Oscar nomination.) It is a character moored inexorably in the present. In the Coppola film he was a former action star, in the Jarmusch he is a former Lothario, and in neither performance do we get much of a hint as to why. In a bit of philosophizing at the end of "Broken Flowers", Don ruminates that the past is over, the future is yet to come, and ?all there is is the present.? In the present, Don operates as if under the influence of a powerful narcotic, barely able to get up the energy to move a limb or a facial muscle. He is a man of few words, none of them direct, nothing along the lines of ?Did you send me a letter ?? The dialogue is so sparse, and the silences in conversations so long, that we are left with the suspicion that the producers contracted the screenplay by the word, and were on a tight budget.
Frederick Elmes ("Blue Velvet") has photographed most of the movie in shadow, with murky interiors and cloudy exteriors, broken occasionally with fits of chilly sunlight. The look is a monochromatic elegance drained of energy. Despite all this, however, there is a surprising amount of humor as Don makes his way back through the archaeology of his romantic past, and there are moments when a smile plays over his aging face like a passing ray of sunshine. Does he find what he is looking ? Well, do any of us ? The answer will have to wait for a viewing of the movie, and a suitably existential ending.
© Text 2005 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be