In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Bill Murray delivers another master class in movie-acting minimalism—so much so that his earlier lessons on the subject (in Lost in Translation and the films of Wes Anderson) seem nearly flamboyant by comparison. As Don Johnston, a middle-aged bachelor resigned to the reliability of life's disappointments, he's a tragicomic Buddha, staring fixedly off into space, struggling to sort out that most cryptic of koans—the one that says money may buy you early retirement and a sleek modernist home on a cozy suburban street, but will bring you no closer to happiness. It's a performance of sublime concentration, like Peter Sellers' in Being There, with each droopy fold and weary line of Murray's face like an etching on a lithographic plate: You need an ink roller to see their full expressive detail, and then, just as soon, they disappear again. Much the same can be said of Broken Flowersitself. It's a romantic comedy in which both the romance and the comedy are turned to such muted levels that any lower would require closed captioning.
When the movie begins, Don has just been dumped by the latest (Julie Delpy) in an endless string of girlfriends. Then a letter arrives—not a love letter per se, though it does hail from an unknown woman. Typewritten on pink paper, its author is one of Don's erstwhile mistresses, belatedly informing him that, some 19 years earlier, they conceived a son together. And that son is now a young man, recently embarked on a road trip, possibly as part of a plan to locate his long lost dad. It's news that would rattle most men, but which scarcely shakes Don from his transcendental funk. Indeed, it's only with the none-too-subtle prodding of his mystery-obsessed neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), that Don finally agrees to track down the letter's anonymous author. There's just one small hitch: No fewer than five of Don's former lady loves could fit the bill. Or make that four. As fate would have it, one has died.
The remainder of Broken Flowers is taken up by Don's sojourn from city to city and one ex-flame to the next—a formula that, in lesser hands, would doubtless lead to maudlin life lessons about how coming to terms with the past imbues Don's life with newfound purpose. Thankfully, Jarmusch never thinks in terms of grand designs. His best films (including his first commercially released feature, Stranger Than Paradise, and his astonishing existential Western, Dead Man) are loose, ambling narratives, often built around quests of real or mythic purpose and aware that more wisdom is gotten en route to a destination than upon reaching it. Here, that approach leads to a quartet of comic set pieces, each charting Don's reunion with one of his exes, and each finding Jarmusch and Murray at the height of their deadpan powers. Of them, my personal favorite has that cauldron of repressed sexuality, Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under's Ruth Fisher), as a realtor of "preconstructed designer homes"—though I must confess that the bit with Jessica Lange as a New Age "animal communicator" ranks a close second. (The other prospective moms are played, respectively, by Sharon Stone—whose nymphet daughter treats Murray to an unexpected and undesired striptease—and a completely unrecognizable Tilda Swinton.)
In Cannes, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, some regarded Broken Flowersas a kind of compromise choice, Jarmusch's most commercial film to date and an altogether nice, if not particularly innovative, movie able to unite the disparate factions battling over more contentious fare. Be that as it may, if Broken Flowers represents an artistic marking of time, then it is one of the sort more directors (especially those attempting screen comedy) should aspire to. For the peculiar genius of Jarmusch is that he can give us a ladies' man named Don (as in Juan) and a teenage temptress called Lolita yet never strike us as glib or opportunistic, because the characters themselves aren't in on the joke. He can cast Lange as a cross between Deepak Chopra and Doctor Doolittle yet never make us feel we're being told when (or even if) to laugh. And he can leave us with some fatherly advice that, simple as it sounds, may be the movie-dialogue equivalent of one hand clapping: "The past is gone," Don says as he nears the end of his journey. "The future isn't here yet, whatever it's going to be. So all there is is this—the present."