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Focus Films

Official Site

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Producers: Jim Jarmusch, Jon Kilik, Stacey E. Smith

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy


Bill Murray and Jim Jarmusch both traffic in cool, fashionable alienation—a collaboration which would’ve been seriously counter-intuitive in the ’80s, when Murray’s disaffected but perky schtick dominated mainstream comedy and Jarmusch’s deadpan minimalism created a whole new arthouse paradigm. Makes way more sense now that Jarmusch’s aesthetic has opened up some and Murray’s has been seriously restricted. Even while Murray was Lost In Translation, Jarmusch was creating heroes who were found when they lost themselves in cultures beyond their normal grasp: Now, they’re on roughly the same wavelength, as Murray finds himself in the wholly unfamiliar culture of the outside world.

At first, Broken Flowers seems like a minor Jarmusch film but a major Murray vehicle. After the marvelous Ghost Dog, Jarmusch retreated into the difficulties of film finance for four years and emerged with the mediocre Coffee And Cigarettes, which played like a B-sides anthology to his major films, repeating the same stylistic tics and concerns to far less effect. In Broken Flowers, director and star are in harmony, though the latter makes a better first impression. Those who find the mere existence of Bill Murray hilarious should have a good time. He’s so completely composed that when he wakes up all rumpled from a nap, even his hair is worth a chuckle. Murray can put a topspin on a seemingly innocuous line and make it laugh-out-loud funny. When his neighbor asks if he wants a cup of coffee, Murray’s reply of “Would it be a cup of Ethiopian coffee?” is inexplicably hilarious.

But Jarmusch appears to have caved, to a certain extent, to the dubious requirement that makes Murray vehicles tick: making all of his foils assholes (even the overrated Lost In Translation displayed as little empathy for Murray’s antagonists as, say, Stripes). Murray is Don Johnston, a modernized Don Juan even in name (which keeps getting him awkwardly confused with another former sex symbol, Don Johnson), who finds himself yanked out of apathy by his neighbor Winston (Wright) and into a road trip to figure out which of four women could be behind a recently received anonymous letter informing him he may have a son. Murray’s quest gets a progressively more and more hostile reception as he continues with it, but he remains largely impassive, and for good reason: All of the women he dated 20 years ago have grown into awful, easily caricatured people. There’s the suburban NASCAR mom (Stone) with aptly named daughter Lolita, the openly insecure real estate agent with lifeless house (Conroy), and—rock bottom—the “pet communicator” (Lange) whose claim to talk to cats and dogs makes her a subject fit for mockery on a bottom-feeding sitcom, complete with animal reaction shots.

Contrary to early buzz, Murray’s performance isn’t the last word in stone-faced deadpan. It’s certainly less inscrutably depressed than his bearded turn in The Royal Tenenbaums, and it reveals a good deal of morose goodwill along the way. Early on, Murray visits Wright’s family for breakfast and compliments his wife on her cooking. “You’re welcome over any time,” she warmly says, and Murray deadpans “What time’s dinner?” For one uncomfortable moment, you’re afraid he might not be kidding and really is that lonely. The difference between, say, Stripes and Broken Flowers is that in Stripes the antagonists put up some kind of resistance, and Murray doesn’t seem completely apathetic, and has to work to impose himself on the world. His smart-ass act is an absurdist protest against a shitty world. Here, the characters don’t even require his mockery. They’re doing nicely on their own, and even if they weren’t, Murray seems too ground-down to make a protest. Yet, despite this, Broken Flowers eventually leaves the realm of easy (but satisfying) mockery to become a melancholy, notable addition to the Jarmusch canon.

It’s still a shock when Jarmusch uses color rather than black-and-white, though maybe since this is the fourth time he’s done it, it really shouldn’t be. The opening shots show his mastery. In a drab post-office world of pale blues, white and grey, the only sign of cheerful color is a pink letter, which makes its way into Murray’s dark, unilluminated house to shake up his world. Jarmusch balances the uncomfortable interviews between Murray and his ex-paramours with lengthy silences. His only significant formal misstep comes in integrating some completely useless and uncharacteristic dream sequences, which recap what we’ve just seen with manipulated film stock. But Broken Flowers has a surprisingly lingering air. By film’s end, Murray’s apathy has been broken, and so too his scorn for easy targets. When the film gets going at first, it’s easy to think that Murray was right to remove himself from a world with so many assholes in it; by the end, it’s shown just how wrong that is. What this says about Jarmusch’s own journey as a chronicler of disaffected slackers remains to be seen. Don Johnston is his first protagonist to be significantly older than the anti-heroes of the last 20 years, and ultimately, Broken Flowers offers a minor leap forward, leaving behind the black-and-white retro-nostalgia of New-York pseudo-bohemia. Jarmusch has always had a warmer sensibility than he’s generally credited with (the warm-and-fuzzy vibes of Down By Law show this early on), but Broken Flowers may be his first film to suggest that life goes on beyond the cool outsiders’ circle.

—Vadim Rizov

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