Title: Broken Flowers
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenwriters: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone
Broken Flowers has some of the same self-absorbed sarcasm that permeates Wes Anderson’s films, but unlike Anderson, Jim Jarmusch backs it up with real tenderness and sophistication. Everything’s here: the deadpan humor, the awkward silence, the non-sequitur quirkiness, but there’s also a story we care about, and characters whose fates matter to us. It’s hardly an organic story: Jarmusch, like many of his compatriots, is much more concerned with developing themes than with imitating life. The fact that we’re engaged anyway — both intellectually and emotionally — speaks to his ability to connect with an audience despite his heady pursuits. That is a valuable and rare skill.
Part of the reason Broken Flowers connects so well, I think, is that while its protagonist — an odd fellow named Don Johnston (Bill Murray, and that’s Johnston with a t) — may not be quite like anyone we’ve ever met, his various neuroses and insecurities seem very, very familiar. Don has made a lot of money (in computers, we’re vaguely informed) and gone through a lot of women, but his day-to-day life is characterized by overwhelming passivity. The film opens with his current girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaving him virtually speechless. She asks him what it is he wants, and he can’t answer. He calls out her name as she leaves, but can find nothing more to say.
The same day, he gets a typewritten letter on pink stationary, letting him know that 20 years ago he had a son, who has now gone out in search of his father. The letter is not signed. His first instinct, of course, is to ignore it: it has to be a joke, right? Surely it cannot be enough to make him shake himself out of his stupor, and it wouldn’t have were it not for his absurdly industrious neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), who seems to have adopted the methods of countless mystery novel detectives and is downright giddy with excitement over this new conundrum. And here’s the kicker: Don doesn’t even have the wherewithal to assert his desire to remain in his coma-like state. He can’t muster the psychological strength to resist.
So off he goes, looking for the potential source of his offspring, with four candidates on his list. The film goes about this with a downright placid mindset; Jarmusch shoots a lot of silence, the inaction on screen a literal manifestation of the protagonist’s psyche, and when it comes to inaction, there’s no one better than Bill Murray. He can sit there and stare at you for minutes, and you’ll be riveted.
Eventually, Jarmusch starts twisting this MO in really interesting ways, and the segment with Frances Conroy as an ex-girlfriend and Chris McDonald as her husband elevates silence into a masterpiece of weirdness. I do not even want to imagine what is going on in that dinner scene, but it is every kind of strange and creepy, all accomplished with a few meaningful gestures and overwhelming awkwardness. It’s awesome, in the original sense of the word, and truly one of the high points of the year. It must be seen.
The ending seems to resolve nothing, but I think it ties up more than meets the eye. After all, at one point in the closing minutes, Don runs; he runs, and the sight is profoundly startling. Mysteries remain uncracked, yes, but there’s little doubt that the protagonist has gone through a transformation. Murray handles this with trademark subtlety, and Jarmusch underscores virtually nothing. Broken Flowers is a wonderful film, mature and nuanced, quirky without being smug or oppressive. Anderson should sit up and take notice.