Bill Murray, under the direction of Jim Jarmusch, declares the beginning of the end of the summer season of blockbusters by delivering August's first high-profile American art film: Broken Flowers. It's time, at last, to bring our focus back to films made for grownups … one that offers us three-dimensional human beings whose stories require us to pay attention and think things through.
Don't misunderstand—the movie is fun. Jarmusch will jolt you with big laughs, the sort that have earned him a loyal following through previous works like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and, most recently, Coffee and Cigarettes.
And while a couple of nude scenes in Broken Flowers warrant the R-rating, the story is all about the deep sadness, regrets, and scars of a man who has neglected "family values."
Don Johnston (Murray) made his money "in computers," and yet money hasn't bought him true love or joy. We're given hints of his younger self—the nickname "Don Juan" follows him around more like a curse than an honor. His dalliances with various lovers ended in disappointment. When we meet him, his latest girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) is, in fact, leaving. With Don's face in profile filling the right side of the screen, we see Sherry standing with her suitcase in the entryway, as though inside a thought bubble—an echo of so many past departures. He's left staring despondently past handsome furniture into oblivion, sullenly resigned to another failure.
Enter Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don's meddling neighbor. Winston's a family man who has discovered "the Net" and is indulging his interest in detective work. Another director might have cast Luis Guzman in the role, and that would have worked. But Wright, a powerfully versatile actor who made strong impressions as a violent gangster in the re-make of Shaft and as the traumatized war veteran in the re-make of The Manchurian Candidate, plays Winston with note-perfect humor and an Ethiopian accent. Winston's just dying for a mystery to solve, and Don unwittingly serves one up.
A pink envelope brings a shock to Don's system: he's apparently the father of an eighteen-year-old son. The letter isn't signed. Don, being Don, responds by bravely digging another furrow across his brow. But Winston's enthusiastic—near-hysterical—response involves a different kind of digging. Before Don can effectively protest, Winston gathers the tools necessary to solve the mystery.
Here, you're likely to share Jarmusch's tangible reluctance to tear Don away from Winston. Their casual chemistry is the film's richest resource of humor and nerves. But the show must go on, and so we're off on the Odyssey of Don: a trip down memory lane, the major points on the map being the current locations of his lost loves. Those failures are played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton.
Stone, making up for her embarrassing turn in Catwoman, is at once funny and painfully sad as Laura, a shallow but free-spirited widow and the mother of a dangerously ditzy teen. Appropriately named Lolita (Alexis Dziena), the daughter's eagerness to full-frontally flaunt her adolescent comeliness for Don is the primary reason for the film's rating.
Dora (Conroy) has entombed her regrets in a pile of stylish throw pillows and pristine home furnishings, her '60s ideals lost in a superficial marriage and a career as a pre-fab home seller.
Exquisitely strange, Carmen (Lange), guarded by a venomous and psychotically overprotective secretary (Chloe Sevigny, of course), has the most unusual occupation—that's best kept as a surprise.
And as a monster spewing bile and bitterness, Tilda Swinton is so scary, it's hard to imagine she'll be any more dangerous when she plays Narnia's White Witch later this year.
Each encounter reveals more of the history behind Don's defeated demeanor. And, during another visit, in a scene of rain, bruises, and defeat, Murray breaks our heart with an expression that may be the most affecting moment of his career.
Broken Flowers is the reverse of Murray's zany classic Groundhog Day. In Harold Ramis's comedy, Murray got to relive the same day over and over, behaving differently while circumstances and surroundings stayed put. Here, his surroundings keep changing, but he maintains the same reluctance and stoicism throughout, so beleaguered by his mistakes that he can't muster the energy to pursue a thing.
To regular moviegoers, it will feel like an art film; to art house patrons, it will feel mainstream. They'll both be right. It's a film that follows a simple storyline, and yet seizes every opportunity to turn a cliché into something slightly dissatisfying, slightly sour, with deep emotions and complicated thoughts running in barely perceptible currents under the sparse dialogue. With the help of Frederick Elmes' graceful cinematography, Jarmusch is a true artist who never steers matters toward an obvious lesson, inviting us to arrive at our own interpretations.
But it is interesting that the only glimmers of real joy in the film can be found in Winston's thriving family. During Don's four-city tour, he finds former flames in various phases of dissatisfaction or delusion. Glamour? It fades and reveals the emptiness beneath it. Success? It's no substitute for contentment. New Age hocus-pocus? Yikes. The continual misapprehensions of Don's real name ("Don Johnson?") bring to mind a popular ideal of the stylish, confident American male. This, we might conclude, is where the path of the macho seducer ultimately leads—to ruin, regret, and rumination on what might have been. Don's journey peels back the surface of so many American dreams to find them wanting, while Winston, dodging his kids and doting on his "perfect" wife, seems as rich as a king.
Broken Flowers has only one thing working against it: Murray's been playing sullen, withdrawn characters a bit too often. The fact that we've recently seen him sulk through Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost in Translation (still his finest performance), and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (another film about a man discovering fatherhood too late), blunts the impact of this, another brilliant performance.
Nevertheless, Broken Flowers' conclusion will send audiences out talking about what it means. But take note: Only the watchful will perceive the subtle significance of that final shot. It finally resolves the central tension of the story. Some critics are missing it, concluding that Don is doomed to the doldrums of disillusionment. But there is a crucial difference in the "hero" during our final, poignant glimpse of him. To say more would be telling, but it could be the key to his redemption.
So, do the film's fleeting moments of explicit content make it entirely unacceptable? That's for each viewer and their conscience to decide. Mature viewers who give Broken Flowers a chance may find themselves refreshed by a movie that invites them to ponder a common experience of regret, to "weep with those who weep," and to contemplate the possibility of redemption and grace. That's a nice change from films that treat us like thrill-seeking children (The Island, anyone?). Where Hitchcock insisted his films were not slices of life, but slices of cake, Jarmusch's are savory servings of life, and they deserve to be treated as delicacies.Discussion starters
Compare and contrast Don's encounters with his ex-lovers. What were the strengths of each relationship? What were the weaknesses?
- We are given very few clues about why each relationship ended. What do you think Don needs to learn before he can experience lasting true love?
- Compare Winston's life to Don's. What are the differences? Why do you suppose Don is in such awe of Winston's wife? Why does Don respect Winston enough to let him meddle so much in his life?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film's harsh language, uses of the Lord's name in vain, and a scene of abrupt and explicit female nudity make this film highly inappropriate not only for children, but for grownups who might be led into lustful thoughts by such imagery. (The scene is not intended or presented as pornography, but to put us in Don's shoes in a disorienting and dismaying situation.) There is also a scene of brief but jolting violence.
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from Film Forum, 08/11/05
Viewers looking for a respite from the deliberately dumb Dukes might be interested in Broken Flowers, which stars Bill Murray, another star of the 1970s and early 1980s who has won acclaim in recent years for his more dramatic sad-clown roles in films like Rushmore and Lost in Translation. Murray plays Don Johnston ("with a T"), a soulless, wealthy man who revisits several of his former lovers—played by Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Tilda Swinton and a surprisingly competent Sharon Stone—when he receives an anonymous letter indicating that one of them may have had a son by him nearly two decades ago.
Interestingly, writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Coffee and Cigarettes) says that Don Johnston, a character he wrote expressly for Murray, is the first protagonist in any of his films that he hasn't felt much empathy for: "I don't even like him. That's very unusual for me. In all my films, no matter how damaged or socially inept characters may be, I really feel for them. I love them. I don't love Don Johnston." But because he wanted to like his character, Jarmusch spent weeks editing the film's last few reels before he even looked at the first ones: "I didn't feel for him in the beginning, but I want to feel for him in the end."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) is similarly impressed: "Bill Murray gives an understated performance that tops his outstanding work in Lost in Translation, and independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch makes arguably his most commercial movie to date in Broken Flowers … The performances are fine, beautiful character portrayals all, and Murray—tousled and deadpan—is luminous, while seemingly doing nothing at all. He conveys Don's ennui, loneliness and desire to reach out not only to the women, but to a couple of male teenagers whom he thinks just may be the putative son."
Thomas Hibbs, a Catholic philosopher who occasionally covers film for National Review, also likes Murray's deadpan performance, but he is less impressed by the film's conclusion: "Not long into Johnston's journey, viewers will begin to wonder, how are they possibly going to end this thing? And the conclusion, with multiple suggestions as to what the answer to the mystery letter might be, falls flat. In this respect, Flowers is inferior to Lost in Translation, which faced a similar dilemma in its final frames, where the dramatic question concerns what do with the aging Murray's burgeoning affection for a much younger woman. That film managed to find just the right way of framing the uncertainty, of formulating the question in concise and dramatically satisfying way. Although Broken Flowers runs out of steam, Murray's mesmerizing performance is still enough to make this film the most captivating of the summer."
Mainstream critics are sending the film roses.from Film Forum, 08/25/05
Josh Hurst (Reveal) raves, "This is the most profound art movie of the year so far, and yet it's also surprisingly mainstream by Jarmusch standards. On one level, he keeps the story moving with compelling characters and plenty of hearty belly laughs; on another level, he and Murray pull of some amazingly subtle things here, creating a deeply meaningful character study that is open to interpretation and deserving of post-viewing discussion and contemplation. There's no preaching here, nor is there a moral lesson at the end of the film. This isn't a fable or an allegory. It's art, and it gives us more questions than it does answers."
Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "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."from Film Forum, 09/01/05
Brett McCracken (Relevant) writes, "The beauty of a Jim Jarmusch film—and to many, the problem—is that it is so open to interpretation. Jarmusch is not interested in neatly wrapped endings or particularly mainstream plots. Rather, he is interested in exploring characters, communication and the interactions between people, places and time. He excels at portraying the American tension between individualism and collectivism: we love to be alone, free to go and do anything on the open road, but when we encounter people and truly connect with them—that too is hard to leave behind."