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Broken Flowers

Movies

Issue: "Faith-based about-face," Aug. 27, 2005

In a scene near the midway point of Broken Flowers, Bill Murray silently stares down at his dinner plate and stacks crinkle-cut carrot rondelles on his fork. Mr. Murray's slight, unexaggerated grimace makes the scene work, speaking volumes about not only the thoroughly unappetizing, too neatly arranged plate of food, but the painful (and amusing) awkwardness of his situation.
There's a lot to be said for a movie that allows such modest moments to take center stage. Broken Flowers (rated R for language, some graphic nudity, and brief drug use) is full of such quiet, leisurely paced scenes, placing well-founded trust in Mr. Murray to pull them off. Mr. Murray is the master of the deadpan gaze-an expression that can seem so empty in lesser actors takes on subtle significance on Mr. Murray's face. Something is always going on behind those heavy-lidded eyes.
The question becomes, then, whether the film indie director Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes, Dead Man) has built around that estimable gaze is worthwhile. One certainly wants it to be, particularly as the film arrives in theaters at the end of a loud and disappointing summer. The answer for many will be no, though, due to a brief scene of graphic full frontal nudity, strong bad language, and a script that is better at exposing sadness than offering hope.
Mr. Murray plays Don Johnston, a man who has met success in business (something to do with computers), but in few if any other areas of his life. As one might expect, Don's house complements his life, or lack thereof-large, modern, and dead. Don spends the better part of his days staring numbly at his flat-screen television, something he's doing early in the film as his current girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), packs her bags and walks out the front door. Sherry accuses Don, in his 50s, of being an "aging Don Juan," one of two plays on his name that haunt Don throughout the film.
As proof of such a life of chasing-but never settling with-women, Don receives a typewritten letter on pink stationery that same day. In it he learns that he is the father of an 18-year-old boy he until this point never knew existed. The boy's mother, writing anonymously, warns Don that his son may soon be seeking him out. This news is met with the same, semi-catatonic stare that greets the rest of Don's daily existence.

Don's enthusiastic neighbor and friend, though, a mystery-loving Ethiopian immigrant named Winston (Jeffrey Wright), latches onto Don's letter as an opportunity for detecting and as the start of a life-changing quest. He pressures Don to make a list of the women who could possibly be the mother (there are five) and creates a full itinerary for Don's journey back through his love life, complete with flights, maps, and rental cars.

Even while following Winston's detailed instructions, Don seems only half-committed to the search for his son. One of the five women is deceased, leaving four (played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) for Don to track down and study. He shows up at their doors simply stating that he's "checking in," and presenting a bouquet of pink flowers (all at the direction of Winston, who also requests that Don bring him their typewriters).

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Broken Flowers won the Grand Prix (the second-place prize) at Cannes this year and has been embraced by critics on our shores. In many ways, it's easy to see why. The film is amusing and thoughtful and features uniformly strong performances. Mr. Jarmusch isn't afraid to stay on a subject (usually Mr. Murray's face) longer than expected, requiring his audience to fill the gaps in narrative with thoughts and reactions of their own-a welcome if modest challenge from a filmmaker.

Mr. Jarmusch deftly renders the sadness of a life unconnected to anyone or anything. By the end of Broken Flowers, a slight shift has taken place in Don, awoken, perhaps, by a dormant fatherly instinct. Don is beginning to care about something, even if he's not sure quite what yet.

But has Mr. Jarmusch told us something profound? Like much of modern film and literature, the idea that something is missing from life is much stronger than some concept of what is missing.

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