Published in the Austin American-Statesman
It is not uncommon for the media to treat the arrival of a new Jim Jarmusch movie as if his films were so strange, few filmgoers could possibly be expected to enjoy them. Judging from the number of times the adjective "quirky" is applied, or from the frequency with which readers are warned of the filmmaker's appreciation of scenes with little or no "action," you'd think Jarmusch was either Tiny Tim or the cinematic answer to "Waiting for Godot."
It's true that his films are unlike the personality-free products that occupy so many of our multiplex screens. (Thank the movie gods for that!) But how could anyone believe that movies so funny, so smart, and -- Jarmusch rarely gets much credit for this -- so musically ebullient would fail to entertain an intelligent audience?
Leave that mystery for another day, because for once Jarmusch offers a film in a mode that (while in no way straying from his own style) has been road-tested by other filmmakers to great success: He has made arguably the best and most touching of the recent Melancholy Bill Murray movies, following "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation."
Murray is Don Johnston, an aging playboy who, when we meet him, is coping with his latest breakup by staring stoically at the TV in a living room that was fashionable back when Johnston enjoyed his sexual prime. Things get more eventful when an anonymous pink letter arrives, claiming that Don has a 20 year-old son he didn't know about, who may or may not be trying to find him.
At the urging of his neighbor (played with scene-stealing charm by Jeffrey Wright), Johnston treats this as a detective story in which "whodunnit?" is the only question that isn't in doubt. Instead, the film wonders "did he do it at all?," "if so, to whom?," and "just how should he feel about it if he did?"
And how's this for "nothing happens in a Jarmusch film"?: Johnston then rents a car, drives to the home of a girlfriend he hasn't seen in 20 years, and ambushes her with no idea how she'll respond, pretending to be casually sociable while slyly trying to figure out if she's the mother of his son.
This happens not once -- which would be plenty of drama for any film -- but with four different women.
The roles of those women present some intriguing against-type opportunities for the actresses -- Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Tilda Swinton -- playing them. It would spoil some of the film's pleasure to talk about who meets our expectations and who doesn't, or who gets less screen time than her peers, but it's safe to reveal that Stone's performance here may be the most likable of her career.
What you don't get in "Broken Flowers" is all of the manipulative dross in which another film might clothe these pregnant encounters. As Johnston drives to each woman's home, we don't hear the syrupy soundtrack or aural flashbacks that might tell us how we're supposed to feel about this meeting -- Murray's impossibly subtle performance conveys the mission's mixed emotions perfectly. Instead, we hear the groovy jazz-pop of Ethiopian artist Mulatu Astatke. Then Johnston parks the car, walks across the lawn, and knocks -- and we witness whatever combination of pleasure, resentment, and bewilderment is waiting behind that door.
The story is episodic, recalling the structure of the director's "Night on Earth" or "Mystery Train," but unlike those films it is concerned with a single character. Bill Murray is on a road trip through a man's soul, and he registers the voyage's highs and lows with enough restraint to justify the title's allusion to "Broken Blossoms," the D.W. Griffith film about a fervent romantic love that is fully expressed without being consummated.