Broken Flowers


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Broken Flowers
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) has just lost yet another girlfriend (Julie Delpy) because of his inability to commit – to anything and, especially, to marriage. He receives a mysterious letter, on pink stationary, telling him that he is the father of a near 20-year old boy but there is no clue as to the author. His friend and neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, comes up with a plan: figure out who the possible suspects – the women from Don’s past about 19 years ago – and visit each one to uncover the truth in “Broken Flowers.”

Robin:
We’ve been getting quite a bit of minimalism from Bill Murray, lately, with his performances in “Lost in Translation” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” When Broken Flowers starts to roll it’s with Don vacantly watching television as live in girlfriend Sherry (Delpy) walks out on him. But, under director Jim Jarmusch, Murray plays Don Johnston (not to be confused with Don Johnson), a man who made a fortune in computers” and now fritters his privileged life away. When he receives the baffling pink letter, his friend Winston jumps at the chance to solve the mystery of who wrote it. This begins a saga that has Don traverse the country to try to figure out who is the mother of the son he never knew.

Don’s list is a short one, with only the names of five women on it, one of whom died some years before. His first stop is to see Laura (Sharon Stone), widow of a NASCAR driver and the mother of aptly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena). They share a brief interlude but Don finds none of the clues Winston said he would need to show Laura as the letter writer.

Johnston moves onto the next suspect on the list, Dora (Frances Conroy), a realtor living an unhappy life selling prefab McMansions with her husband, Ron (Christopher McDonald). Again, though, there is nothing to even hint that Dora is the one. Even her pink business cards were Ron’s idea

His next visit is to self-proclaimed “animal communicator,” Dr. Carmen (Jessica Lange), who is none too happy to see Don and is glad to be rid of him soon after his arrival. She, too, proves a dead end even though she once owned a dog named Winston.

Don’s last stop is in the middle of nowhere to see his number four suspect, Penny (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton). Here clues abound but Penny’s reaction is so hostile and vehement the visit only earns him a beating from her boyfriend.

This doesn’t sound like much of a tale but Jarmusch makes fresh, again, Murray’s minimalist delivery and deadpan persona. The character, Don, uses his lassitude as a cloak to protect him from commitment. Even his journey of self-discovery is completely orchestrated to the smallest detail by someone else.

Jeffrey Wright is, without a doubt, one of the finest character actors in the business today. His performances in “Basquiat,” “Shaft,” “Angels In America” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” to name a few, were all unique and richly defined. As Don’s closest friend, Winston, he keeps it light and funny, such as when he explains to his young daughter that he is smoking a joint and not a cigarette - that is, of course, very bad for you.

Of the ladies, Sharon Stone gets the most sympathetic character in Laura. She has some miles on her but she has a giving heart and gladly beds her former lover just for a night. Frances Conroy is a sad character that has all the trappings of a happy life but it is all smoke and mirrors. Conroy gains your sympathy if not your empathy. Jessica Lange’s Dr. Carmen is the least dimensioned of the four ex-lovers in a performance that feels serendipitous. Tilda Swinton gets the most angst-ridden role but it is too brief to give us any real answers. Alexis Dziena is a shocking breath of fresh air in one of her first features and should get some notice. Mark Webber makes his entry late in the film and throws a curve ball perf that keeps one guessing.

Jarmusch returns, somewhat, to the languid, introspective style that he first exhibited with his debut film, “Stranger Than Paradise,” but here is so much more experienced and assured as a filmmaker. This languidness walks a fine line that could have been a detriment to “Broken Flowers” and the helmer/writer handles it with skill. Like Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch makes films his way. He’s not trying to please the masses, just himself and those of us who appreciate his work. I give it a B.

Laura:
Don Johnston (Bill Murray, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") is a former womanizer who has retired on money made in computers.  His life now seems to occur almost entirely on his living room sofa.  One day, two simultaneous events become a catalyst that make Don begin to question. As Don's most recent girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy, "Before Sunset") leaves him (she feels like his mistress even though he isn't married, she says), she finds a pink envelope beneath his mail slot.  The typewritten letter inside is unsigned, but advises Don that he has a nineteen year old son who may be trying to hunt him down in writer/director Jim Jarmusch's ("Coffee and Cigarettes") 2005 Cannes Grand Prix award winning "Broken Flowers."

In what is sure to be Jarmusch's most accessible film to date, Bill Murray's brand of minimalist, sad-sack romantic is perfect for Jarmusch's existential detective story - in searching out the different women he's had relationships with, Don Johnston is able to recognize what he has missed, what, in fact, he hadn't even realized was missing. Johnston (frequent gags are riffed on his name's similarity to actor Don Johnson's) is like "Rushmore's" Herman Blume bored by too many conquests or "Lost in Translation's" Bob Harris if he'd never left his hotel room.

Johnston's not even sure if he's upset that Sherry has left him, but his inner hounddog is on autopilot still.  'How's the sweetest grape on the vine?' is his greeting to neighbor Winston's (chameleon Jeffrey Wright, HBO's "Angels in America") wife Mona (Heather Alicia Simms, "Head of State") after he ambles next door to help Winston out with a PC problem (Don does not own a computer, a further indication of his unplugged life).  A couple of clicks and Winston's into his site about novel writing and crime solving and Don's letter is just the thing to practice with.  Days later, Winston presents Don with an itinerary to visit all the women who could have been the author, a mix tape for the journey, and instructions on how to proceed (bring each pink flowers, look for family photos and a typewriter).  Don's not for the idea, but somehow Winston's enthusiasm propels him forward on a journey that starts out on a zany high and grows increasingly melancholy and disturbing.

Don approaches Laura's (Sharon Stone, "Casino," "The Muse") small ranch with pink tulips (perfect lover and luck), but is met by her sexually precocious daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena, "Wonderland"). (Jarmusch pounds the reference - Dziena wears large, heart-shaped earrings that can't help but call to mind Sue Lyon's sunglasses from the 1962 film's poster).  Laura's happy to see him, but there's a sadness there as well, as she cleans house after losing her race car-driving SO.  While there is surely a strong need for a father here, there are no typewriters in Laura's yard sale.  Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy, HBO's "Six Feet Under"), a woman both buttoned up (she keeps fingering the pearls at her neck) and girlish who is partnered with her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald, "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams," "Grind") in a lucrative real estate development.  Dora's business card may be pink (Ron's idea - his is blue), but there are no other clues to be found in their sterile McMansion or strangely off-kilter relationship (although Dora's pink roses signify happiness).  If Dora was somewhat alarmed by Don's presence, Carmen (Jessica Lange, "Big Fish") is downright closed.  After obtaining a grudging few minutes of her schedule 'translating' pets for her clients, it is clear that Carmen does not wish to revisit her past and her assistant (Chloë Sevigny, "Melinda and Melinda") is outwardly hostile, returning the lilies (majesty, wealth, pride) Don has brought for the woman who must be her lover. After an interlude at the grave of a woman who is left a mixed pink bouquet and Don's tears - the first we've seen - Don makes his last visit to Penny (Tilda Swinton, "Constantine") bearing wildflowers from the side of a rural road.  Great big arrows point to the pink gas tank of her motorcycle and the pink typewriter abandoned on the lawn, but she's clearly unhinged by Don's appearance and he's punched out (by indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden, "Habit") for his troubles. Dispirited, he returns home, where he keeps seeing a backpacking kid (Mark Webber, "Winter Solstice") who intrigues him, but as soon as he commits himself to an idea, the rug is pulled out from him once again.

Jarmusch is far more successful digging into the meaning of life with the aid of a detective than David O. Russell was last year with his airy "I Heart Huckabees."   "Broken Flowers" takes a more personal, home grown approach, with its self-taught gumshoe (Wright, the opposite of Murray's vision of ennui) prodding his friend and neighbor out of his apathy.  In seeing all the disparate trails of what has happened to these women when their lifelines diverged with his, Don can recognize his own stagnation and what that has cost him.  While Murray seems to be playing the same basic character over and over of late, Jarmusch uses his remove well, filling in blanks with the vastly different women he's chosen to be with.  Sharon Stone is wonderful, perhaps abetted with the most sympathetic character, but still, she is warm, free and just a little melancholy.  The most enigmatic performance comes from Conroy in scenes Jarmusch has imbued with all kinds of unexplained subtext.  Lange's astringent new agey professional takes things one step further, going where Don is distinctly unwelcome.  Swinton, almost unrecognizable in a brunette wig, is barely given a chance to define the character that ironically seems the most likely letter writer.

Jarmusch seems to be giving us a conventional ending when he introduces the young man of appropriate age, but instead he refuses to wrap everything up neatly. Some may charge the filmmaker with ambiguity, but Murray gives us the real answer as the camera lingers on his face - his own wonderful bewilderment.

B+
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