After his taciturn performances in “Lost in Translation” and “The Life Aquatic,” Bill Murray may now have reached the point where he is simply imitating himself. In “Broken Flowers,” the new film from indie writer/director Jim Jarmusch, Murray does his thing — the silences, the blank face that occasionally dissolves into a subtle expression of some kind, the seeming befuddlement and weariness at the lot life has cast him — but he does it to not nearly as great effect as in the just-mentioned films. With a minimalist approach, you run the risk of becoming so minimal as to be non-existent, you know.
That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film, because I mostly did. It has a straightforward, cleanly structured story and a few solid laughs amid the existential agonizing. But Murray and the other actors are often filmed giving looks that are clearly meant to be meaningful, yet I often have no idea what that meaning is.
OK, we’re looking at someone, and she’s making a face, and that face means … surprise? Compassion? Irritation? Plenty of time to figure it out, because the camera has been lingering for 15 seconds now, and we’re not being interrupted by dialogue … but what IS that face?
Murray’s better at it than his co-stars, that much is certain. He plays Don Johnston, a well-off man who made his fortune in computers yet doesn’t own one, who lives alone and putters around his tastefully decorated, dimly lit house in an expensive-looking track suit. He was a notorious Lothario back in the day, and still gets comparisons to Don Juan from his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright). Winston is happily married with many children and seems to think, however subtly and cheerfully, that Don needs to grow up.
Don’s latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), would agree. She leaves him as the film begins, citing the usual film-clichÃ© reasons of You’ll Never Change and Why Can’t You Just Settle Down? “I’m like your mistress, except you’re not even married,” she says. Don doesn’t try very hard to stop her from leaving.
He then receives a letter with no signature and no return address. It purports to be from a former lover who tells him he has a 19-year-old son who may be trying to find him now. Winston, an amateur sleuth, loves the mystery. Extracting from Don the list of possible suspects — women he was intimate with 20 years ago — he assembles an itinerary of flights, rental cars and maps so that Don can visit each woman, one by one, and find the mother of his son, this son he never knew he had. Don is reluctant, but Don is also governed by inertia. Once Winston drives him to the airport, the path of least resistance is to simply take the trip. So he does.
There are four women on his list. Each lives in a different unnamed city, far enough apart to require an airplane trip each time, though Jarmusch has intentionally left each location vague and faceless. With each old flame he encounters, Don gets a less-friendly reception. NASCAR widow Laura (Sharon Stone) is happy to see him; tamped-down real estate agent Dora (Frances Conroy) is baffled but not unhappy; pet psychic Carmen (Jessica Lange) is cordial but unhospitable; and he leaves the home of white-trash Penny (Tilda Swinton) with a black eye.
Each woman gets a scene or two, a vignette of reminiscences and general conversation, and Don sees four different lives that would now be unrecognizable if he had stayed in the picture 20 years ago. Should he have settled down with one of these women? Is one of them the mother of this alleged son?
Don never asks any of the women, “Did you send me a letter?” Instead, he simply looks for clues. I find this highly improbable. Why travel all that distance just to beat around the bush? Why not come out and ask the question?
Now, when you point out an apparent flaw this basic in a movie like “Stealth,” people laugh and say, “Yeah, what a dumb movie.” But when you mention something that seems so illogical in a Jim Jarmusch movie, you are accused of having missed the point.
In the case of “Broken Flowers,” the point would, in fact, be hard to miss. It’s about a man with a mostly meaningless life who is now, at this late stage, searching for meaning. Don has begun to realize he needs to DO something, to stop loving ’em and leaving ’em and to start making his life worthwhile. The point of the film is not in question, and Jarmusch and Murray execute it well enough, as far as it goes.
But the whole thing ultimately leaves me wanting. The resolution is singularly unsatisfying, and what’s worse, I can see it coming, and that it’s going to be unsatisfying, a mile away. And though Murray can say a lot with a well-timed reaction or a judicially employed shy smile, there are times when more is called for. I note one instance when he is visiting the grave of a former lover and tears begin to well up in his eyes. It is about to be a very emotional moment for both the character and the audience, and then Jarmusch cuts away. Why, in a film clearly meant to engage us emotionally, prevent us from getting there?
B- (1 hr., 45 min.; )