Broken Flowers
directed by Jim Jarmusch
(Focus, 2005)

Bill Murray is the best observer in the movies.

In Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Murray is essentially given one task: to observe, to watch the people from his past and to watch his own life unfold.

Jarmusch wrote the part of Don Johnston for Murray, and it shows. The actor is able to distill his stillness -- used so effectively in 2003's Lost in Translation -- into something that's not passive, but not quite alive, either.

Broken Flowers is a quest story of a different kind. Don isn't actively looking to rescue anyone, and he's not consumed with finding his holy grail. Instead, avowed bachelor Don is sort of pushed, kicking and screaming, into his quest. After years of moving from one girlfriend to the next, Don receives an anonymous pink letter.

He has a son. And that son may be searching for him.

Left to his own devices, Don probably wouldn't examine the situation, but his friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) can't imagine how Don could overlook this piece of information, and he maps out what Don needs to do. So Don sets out on his mission: to visit his old loves in their new lives, and to figure out which one is the mother of his child.

It's a long first half hour as this all gets under way, even longer when you know what's coming and just want Don to get on with it, get on the road and figure things out.

Not that anything like this comes easily to Don. After zigzagging around to the first few exes, he's ready to give up on the whole thing, turn in the rental car and head home. "I'm a stalker in a Taurus," he complains to Winston. And it's here that Jarmusch's talent with vignettes takes over. Interspersed with Don tooling down highways are the miniature set pieces Jarmusch does so well.

He's re-visited Laura (Sharon Stone) an ex who's now the widow of a race car driver. Laura's daughter, the aptly named Lolita, isn't Don's child. He's talked to Carmen (Jessica Lange), who's now a doctor, and Dora (Frances Conroy), the former flower child who now sells homes with her husband. (It's this interlude I found the squirmiest, as her husband, Ron, comes home and insists Don stay for what may be one of the most uncomfortable meals in the movies. Maybe it's actor Christopher McDonald's patently fake white teeth and tense passive aggressiveness, or Dora's churning silence. Either way, it's a wonder any of them can breathe by the end of dinner.)

And, finally, there's the unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Penny, whose anger at seeing Don is seconded by a knockout punch delivered by two guys working on cars at Penny's farm. An even more muted Don heads home, black eye and all, only to stumble across a young man with a backpack who may be his son.

To talk about how Broken Flowers ends isn't possible -- but it ruins nothing to note that Jarmusch isn't really as concerned about whether Don's found his son as he is about the realization Don has -- where his choices have brought him, and about the rewards and limits of making amends.

Jarmusch's last, lingering shot, with Don standing alone in the street, is a great Murray moment.

"Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets," playwright Arthur Miller once said. In Don's case, we're left alone, like him, to wonder.

by Jen Kopf
20 May 2006

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