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Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch’s widely heralded new film, utilizes the classic road movie format as the vehicle for a deadpan midlife crisis, all delivered in an understated, mildly comic style heavily laced with melancholy. Early on, Jarmusch has his hero, Don Johnston (Bill Murray), watching the 1934 film The Private Life of Don Juan, a clue to Johnston’s history of sexual conquest without emotional commitment. His current girl friend, Sherry (Julie Delpy) walks out on him, calling him "an over the hill Don Juan" and complaining that he treats her like a mistress–and he isn’t even married.
Johnston has made his fortune ("in computers"), lives in a large house, luxurious but notably lacking in style, and passively watches a lot of TV. His only friend is his neighbor Winston (JeffreyWright), an Ethiopian (national identity of no apparent significance), who acts as little more than a plot device. Johnston gets an anonymous letter, presumably from a former lover, who tells him she fathered a son by him nineteen years before, a son who is now seeking out his father. Winston convinces Johnston to look up four women from his past, one of whom might be the letter writer, and his journey begins.
His first visit is with Laura Daniels (Sharon Stone in a subtly shaded performance), widow of a racing car driver and a professional closet organizer–a fine touch of the absurd. Her nymphet daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena, who strikes just the right note), seems very much her mother’s daughter and, indeed, Laura’s easy and casual approach to sex without strings emotionally aligns her with Johnston.
Second is Dora (Frances Conroy), who, with her smarmy husband Ron (Chistopher McDonald), has made a fortune in "quality prefab homes." She seems locked in a narrow (if comfortable) existence and suffused with an unarticulated sadness–a longing, perhaps, for what might have been. The third lover is Carmen (Jessica Lange, also delivering a skillfully layered performance), a successful lawyer who now sells herself as an "animal communicator," yet another amusing bit of the absurd. She is enthusiastically protected by her assistant (Chloe Sevigny) who turns out to be her lover. And finally, Johnston ends up in a bikers’ community where he is confronted by a hostile Penny (Tilda Swinton).
Along the way, Johnston is looking for clues to identify the letter-writer: the color pink, a typewriter, evidence of motherhood. Finally, he has a brief encounter with a young man who may or may not be his son. The philosophy that Johnston offers at this point is uncomfortably hackneyed. Is this all he learned from this series of encounters?
Admirers of Bill Murray will no doubt swoon over his performance in Broken Flowers. It’s a reiteration in ways of Lost in Translation in which he also says little and maintains the deadpan response. It works well enough here most of the time and Murray does use his eyes to telling effect. As might be expected of a Don Juan, there is an emotional hole at his center, a missing connection that his journey has put into perspective. But the role is otherwise so underwritten that that point alone seems slight characterization for the central character. The classic literary Don Juan was aggressive and a skilled seducer, traits that lent interest to a heartless rogue. But Jarmusch allows for none of that in Johnston, only a history that isn’t consistent with the character as presented in the film.
Broken Flowers has a good deal of off-handed charm and enough satirical moments (cell phone joke included) to sustain interest, but it’s no more than Don Juan Lite, offering a veneer of profundity, lacking in payoff.