Broken Flowers
Director: Jim Jarmusch. Cast: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Heather Simms, Alexis Dziena, Christopher McDonald, Chlo Sevigny, Pell James, Mark Webber. Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch.

Photo © 2005 Focus Features
The first of many, many wrong notes sounded in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers is the title. What is a broken flower? The tenor of the phrase is more precious than poetic. It doesn't feel like a title anyone would choose, except as some kind of atonal translation of an Ozu film. In fact, a glimpse at the final credits reveals that Broken Flowers is copyrighted as a production of Dead Flowers, LLC, about as clear an indicator as you can get that this title was changed (softened?) somewhere along the way to the artplex.

Not that I would make much of a case for Dead Flowers as a film title, either. Actually, I wouldn't make much of a case for almost anything in this movie, because the movie makes so little case for itself. Granted, audiences and critics since Cannes have happily picked up all of the slack that, from where I was sitting, kept spooling out of Jarmusch's lazy conception and execution. Truly, Broken Flowers is coming as close as anything we've seen in 2005 to being a certified critical darling. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but the laconic minimalism of the film never seemed piquant or probing to me; it just feels minimal, except in those moments of such creaky exposition and frustratingly overt finger-pointing that "minimal" hardly seems like the word we're looking for.

The opening sequence lingers on the peregrination of a plus-sized pink envelope, a plash of color in a sea of dull white, as though everything else in the mail that day is someone's utility bill. This unsubtle design choice is an early flag that Jarmusch isn't quarrying pure realism in Broken Flowers, though the empty silence of the soundtrack and the surprisingly stolid camerawork of Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) foreclose the slightest whiff of camp or broad style. Clearly, if you're a sucker for broad style, Jarmusch is an especially bad pick for an evening at the movies, though it also must be said that his growing preoccupation with celebrity and the heavily mannered inertia that is his favorite tonal idiom are hardly the stuff of self-constraint. Jarmusch goes about as far as he can go with shots, plots, and personalities whose expressive capacities don't seem ready to bear all the weight. When it works, as in the sublime Ghost Dog, the comedy of conversation and the lively drama of reticence can be stunning. Forest Whitaker, a bulky and poorly integrated presence in so many other movies, is limber and light in Ghost Dog, even while living by the sword. It's unlikely that anyone but Jarmusch could have found that side of Whitaker, and that film—especially for viewers who, like me, missed Jarmusch's first wave—verifies that the coexistence of the mundane and the whimsical can pay enormous returns in this director's hands.

More recently, though, Jarmusch's felicitous touch just doesn't seem to be there. If you've ever stuttered at a loss for a word, and then imagined making a whole movie out of that feeling, you aren't far from the terrain of last year's Coffee & Cigarettes, which plays like an extended fugue of people with nothing to say to each other. Sadly, the ironic or illuminating possibilities in that project wither alarmingly early in its run-time, and the film sputters along for a good while until its winning conclusion almost saves it. Chock-full of halting and abortive dialogues, the film itself didn't really tell us anything. Such is the case, too, with Broken Flowers, which also feels in retrospect like a protracted build-up to its own conclusion. This is no huge surprise, since the first hour and a half of Broken Flowers already feels like an exercise in treading water before the conclusion all but proves as much. It's a very plotty film that is mostly uninterested in its plot, and yet it fails to accumulate the kinds of moods, jokes, or credible insights that would allow its emotional climaxes to really pay off.

The storyline is simple: the anonymous pink letter that we follow through the opening credits arrives at the house of Don Johnston (Bill Murray), informing him for the first time that he has an 18-year-old son, who might be coming to look for him. Don feigns indifference to the letter and its news, though of course you'd have no movie if that indifference were real. Still, both Don and the film fob off the grunt-work of generating a story onto Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a neighbor addicted to mystery stories who can't stop pondering the implications of Don's letter, and who architects an elaborate, expensive itinerary of plane trips, car rides, and one-night hotel rooms so that Don can track down the old flames most likely to have borne Don's son—if, that is, the son even exists. Like clockwork, the film spends 15-20 minutes setting all of this up, and then 15-20 minutes in the vicinity of each woman, and then 15-20 minutes wrapping things up in just the way you'd expect.

All of this is so humdrum and basically predictable that you'd think it's the perfect foundation for a good Jarmusch tale: a scaffold on which to hang the witty non-sequiturs and stone-faced ironies of daily life. But Broken Flowers doesn't really do that, and what's worse, it does the opposite: it invents jokes that are impossible to believe even once, and then it hammers them home repeatedly. "Don Johnston" sounds like "Don Juan" and also like "Don Johnson," a milky screenwriting conceit that just isn't funny, even though the obviousness of the allusions is supposed (I guess) to be what's funny about them. A vulgar, sexually energized pre-teen is christened Lolita, which is a lame enough joke before Don and the girl's mother, Laura (Sharon Stone), share a winking aside about it. Stray elements of pink, the signature color of the mysterious letter-writer, are tantalizingly glimpsed in the backgrounds of several shots, but Jarmusch just can't deny himself the overstatement of close-ups: on a typewriter, on a pair of pants, on the chassis of a motorcycle.

Broken Flowers isn't the kind of comedy that wants to surprise us with its humor or its visual strategies; from what I could tell, it wants to surprise us into finding the humor in totally familiar and essentially empty punchlines. I can't understand why anyone would bother to do this, especially since the film proves so indiscriminate in where it searches for chuckles. The ex-girlfriends themselves, or three of them anyway, are characterized in ways that make them into their own form of joke, opening the door for reviewers to marvel at how ably Jarmusch's seasoned actresses "humanize" these silly creations. That they may, but to what end? Laura, a professional closet-organizer, has been widowed at the NASCAR track. Frances Conroy's Dora, half of a realty power-couple and a repressive with a Freudian namesake, lives in a model home with her husband, and with a framed painting of their own carbon-copy house hanging over their mantel. Jessica Lange plays Carmen, an "animal communicator" who writes the kinds of books that Rob Schneider might write in an SNL skit; the camera dotes on the asinine and asyntactical jacket copy as if it is finding something there. Tilda Swinton, God bless her, barrels into Broken Flowers just long enough to read out a small riot act, and then she storms back into the livelier, more cutting movie from whence she seems to have come.

Positioned as some kind of trailer-park joke, if Jarmusch had either the energy or the cruelty of a genuine caricaturist, Swinton strikes not a single puckish note in her single scene, proving all by herself how badly this movie needs an injection of something hot, something historied, something sincere. Not that Broken Flowers is wholly lacking in resonance. Part of Jarmusch's conceit in staging this pilgrim's progress is that each time Don comes calling somewhere, he is more frostily and less forgivingly received. The women are all brooking disappointments of their own well before Don shows up, so they are not quite one-dimensional creations, but from the standpoint of screenwriting, they still feel too programmatic, too serviceable to get at anything substantial beyond Don's limping odyssey.

Instead, Jarmusch hands the whole movie to Bill Murray as Don, extending the cycle of faux-"indie" directors who will walk hot coals for this increasingly disinterested muse. Like Don in Broken Flowers, Murray seems to be getting further and further off-track with each return to his trademarked well of loneliness. Bob Harris in Lost in Translation was a stirring creation, despite how jarring it was when Sofia Coppola asked us to believe Bill Murray as an over-the-hill action star. (Surely just "over-the-hill" would have been enough?) The wrong-note rag rings even louder in Broken Flowers: granted, Murray is suddenly America's consensus idea of a genius actor, but is he anyone's idea of a lothario, past, present, or future? Julie Delpy, who skirts out of the picture quickly as Don's latest gumdrop, gets to sling out a juicy-sounding line about feeling like Don's mistress, even though he isn't married. But look closer, and the line makes no sense: stagnating on his couch, a dévoté of far-away stares and deadpan sarcasm, barely there even when he's out in the world, Murray's Don doesn't seem like the type to woo anyone into ecstasy, much less the bevy of hot tickets that Jarmusch puts on parade. There isn't even a flicker of the younger Don who makes Laura smile with recognition or makes Carmen glower with hostility; certainly there's nothing to account for Julie Delpy wilting away desperately in Bill Murray's living room in a suburban tract house.

Everything in the movie makes clear that Jarmusch wanted to explore the loneliness of the long-ago lover, and that he wanted to work with Murray. Whether Murray is at all the proper actor for this storyline seems, if anything, like a side-concern. Prone to looking smug around women his own age, Murray's chemistry is best with Frances Conroy, who, not coincidentally, is the woman we most pity, who is most deeply humiliated by her present circumstances. By contrast, Swinton practically swats Murray out of the movie, and Lange comes close. The film keeps chugging along between implausible junctures, bizarrely propelled by Winston's over-investment in the plot rather than Don's own, and if there is any doubt that Broken Flowers is straining to pad itself out, even at a concise 105 minutes, check out those gratuitous and color-saturated flashback montages with which flashy editor Jay Rabinowitz (Requiem for a Dream) keeps himself entertained.

Busily, then, even as it struggles to look cool and unruffled, Broken Flowers chases the conditions that will allow viewers to call it sophisticated, adult, and poignant, but beneath the film's surface is not a wellspring of feeling but a wreck of contradiction and an immaturity of conception. There's simply no reason to buy anything on view, except the righteous impatience of the last two women—severely impatient with the movie and the actor, I felt their pain—and the tense, "unexpected" mano--mano with which the film concludes. This last sequence finally supplies Murray with a character to play, after all the low-intensity mugging of the preceding 90 minutes. Plus, for the first time in the film, he is matched against someone whose secrets are as compelling to the film as Murray's own. It's an involving piece of storytelling, an anecdote of Raymond Carver temperatures and proportions, but it doesn't deepen Broken Flowers so much as it reroutes the picture into a rather different version of itself, one which hardly needed a letter or a Winston or a Carmen or a graveside sob—and even with all of that, one that still fails fully to convince. I didn't buy the leap Murray's character makes in order to act the way he does here, except that the film needs him to leap, so he does. I felt very little about this scene or these characters that I wouldn't have felt anyway if the movie were starting here instead of ending. Even within its expanded emotional provenance, this intriguing finale still feels like a gimmick or an obligation, a necessary culmination for a frankly unnecessary story.

The film ends with one of those 360 handheld shots that orbit around the protagonist, probing for some persuasive motive behind the camera's own restlessness. It's funny how often the films with the least to really say about their characters conclude with these kinds of shots—from A Man and a Woman to House of Sand and Fog, there's a whole lineage of movies that have failed to make me care about their central figures, leaving the directors to summon some last gasp of an emotional bond through the false exhilaration of camera movement. In this case, the shot simply crystallizes what Broken Flowers has been doing all along—doting on Bill Murray from every angle, without extracting anything in his character or his performance that warrants all the fuss. C


Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize

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