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Broken Flowers (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Broken Flowers

Broken Flowers


Starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Alexis Dziena, Chloe Sevigny, Christopher McDonald, Brea Frazier, Jarry Fall, Korka Fall, Saul Holland, Zakira Holland, Niles Lee Wilson, Chris Bauer and Pell James.

Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch.

Distributed by Focus Features.   105 minutes.  Rated R.

Bill Murray’s acting style has become so subtle and so introverted that in Broken Flowers you watch him for almost two hours going through a whirlwind tour of his past and never once really have any idea what he is thinking.  His character is so guarded, so numb, that you never know if he is happy to be on this journey or sad or indifferent.  You have no real idea what he feels about anything he is experiencing.  He wears the same mild grimace of unhappiness and disinterest whether he is waking up alone in a strange motel room, waking up next to an old lover or waking up after being beaten unconscious by a couple of toughs.

I recognize that this is the point of the character.  I also recognize that writer/director Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law, Night On Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes) is also an exceedingly quiet, nuanced storyteller who also tells his stories in small, measured steps, not grand passions.  However, as much as I respect Broken Flowers as a film — and it is a very good one — this feeling of total emotional disconnect has the unfortunate side effect of making it hard to care too much about the movie.  If the lead character seems rather ambivalent about what is happening to him, how is the audience to care more?

Murray plays Don Johnston (leading to a whole running gag of people mistakenly thinking he is named after the former Miami Vice star Don Johnson), a guy who became rich because of some vague past computer innovation that he will not talk about.  He is middle-aged and never has been married, although we are led to believe that he cut quite a wide swathe with the ladies.  Everyone refers to him as a real Don Juan, (Don Juan – Don Johnston – get it?  They get a lot of mileage out of his name) but honestly you rarely see what all these women see in him.  Don would prefer to just putter around the house, watching old movies and periodically visiting his dynamic neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) and his lively, happy family.

The film opens as Don is being dumped by his latest lover (Julie Delpy).  But even as you watch her leaving him you can’t tell for sure if he is truly hurt by this turn of events or just inconvenienced by it.  At first, it seems like he’d rather watch Jose Ferrer in the old movie of Don Juan (yes, we do have some recurring motifs here…) and even when he follows her out to try to stop her, when she gives him the opportunity to try to talk her out of leaving he has nothing to say.

When he returns to his house he finds an anonymous letter from an ex-lover saying that she had his baby twenty years before and that the boy may be looking for him now.  Don greets this revelation with his normal shrug of indifference.  However Winston, who fancies himself a detective, is intrigued.  Winston takes it upon himself to track down the women from Don’s past most likely to have written the letter.

Winston talks Don into flying all around the country to find the exes (and oddly, one dead ex-lover, who was unlikely to have been able to type) and see if he can figure who wrote the note.  Jarmusch goes out of his way to make sure that we have no idea where in the US the story is taking place at any given time, removing all landmarks or signs from all the scenes.  Even Don’s hometown is purposely generic.

This road trip leads Don to find out what became of the women he once loved.  One became the widow of a NASCAR racer (Sharon Stone) with a jailbait-tease daughter (Alexis Dziena) who is named Lolita, in case you missed the fact that she was a little temptress.  The next has become an uptight real estate exec (Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under) married to a passive-aggressively competitive husband (Christopher McDonald).  Another has turned into a new-age veterinarian (Jessica Lange).  Then there is the tough biker chick (Tilda Swinton) who is not too happy to see him.

Some of the timelines here seem a little skewed.  They show a picture that Don supposedly took of one of the exes (Conroy) and she is a hippie — which means that if he had a baby with her it would now be about 35-years-old, not twenty.  Also, the biker chick (Swinton) looks to be significantly younger than all the other women he visits.

In the end, the visits don’t seem to teach him much (in fact, he only comes out and actually asks the big question of why he is there to one of them.)  You don’t seem to even understand if he really wants to know.  It is obvious that he now looks at every twentyish boy as his potential son, however when he does finally try to talk to one of them he acts so oddly that he just scares the kid off.

You also kind of get an idea why he never lasted with any of these women — beyond the fact that he is a commitment-phobe it appears that he still has a taste for young girls; he seems more comfortable chatting with Lolita and a pretty flower store clerk (Pell James) than he does with his former lovers.  Perhaps it is because they are still fresh and striking, however I think it has more to do with the classic old Thomas McGuane line: “I like young girls.  Their stories are shorter.”  Don seems uncomfortable exploring where he has been and where he is going, he’s much better at the surface level stuff.

So in the end, the biggest positive in Murray’s portrayal kind of works to the detriment of the movie.  He was also inscrutable in Lost In Translation, but that character was not so cut off from his emotions and he was not completely unable to have a good time.  In Broken Flowers, you never get the impression that he has learned or experienced or felt much of anything.  Therefore, as much as you may like the eccentric storytelling style of this movie, it seems a little hollow.  The film, like Don himself, seems to be an empty vessel.  (8/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: August 21, 2005.

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