Quest as Test

Jim Jarmusch succeeds by keeping Broken Flowers messy.

Broken Flowers
Bill Murray: Funny don't come easy anymore.
Bill Murray: Funny don't come easy anymore.
The contentedly independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has brought his restless energy to a series of surreal road movies that move along nicely on the strength of rare characters, quirky humor, and a willing embrace of chance adventure. These quest stories for hipsters have transported Jarmusch's fiercely loyal audience from New York to Cleveland (Stranger Than Paradise), from a crappy New Orleans jail cell to the wilds of the bayou country (Down by Law), and in a veritable orgy of wanderlust, into the backseats of taxi cabs in L.A., New York, Rome, and Helsinki -- all in one night (Night on Earth). For someone who sits down to write his scripts in a rustic cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, this director sure seems like a rolling stone who never unpacks his suitcase.

In his strangely affecting, uncharacteristically star-studded Broken Flowers, the Cuyahoga Falls native hits the road again. This time he's in the company of a dour, aging ladies' man (Bill Murray) on the hunt for the mother of his 19-year-old son, of whose existence he has just learned via a cryptic note typed on pink stationery. The fact that good old Dad pops in on four possible mothers in the course of his search posits four love affairs in one year of the Reagan administration, quite a body count, even for a fellow whose name -- Don Johnston -- is an Americanized play on "Don Juan." Apparently, Warren Beatty never had a thing on this guy.

As a movie actor, Murray has long since abandoned the playful cutup everybody loved on Saturday Night Live and taken up residence in a darker, more seasoned persona -- part ironist, part tormented seeker, only occasionally the purveyor of jest or joke. In Flowers, we see in Murray the same kind of poker-faced world-weariness he transmitted in Lost in Translation. A soul adrift. Through the years, Don has made a tidy fortune in computer design, but his life doesn't add up. He never married, and his latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy) has just left him for unspecified reasons; one of the first views Jarmusch gives us in the aftermath is that of a tired campaigner in the war between the sexes, sitting alone in his darkened living room, half-watching old movies on the boob tube. Is this a sexual dynamo women still find irresistible? Not to look at him.

Our hero's shaken from his inertia, more or less, by his energetic neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright). An exuberant family man with five kids and three jobs, Winston still finds time to indulge his taste for amateur detective work, and he's delighted when he convinces Don to ferret out the author of the pink letter. Thenceforward to the airport.

As we'd hoped, each of the far-flung women Don revisits in anonymous, unnamed sectors of the country comes furnished with the famous Jarmuschian oddity, as do the several creatures in their orbits. Luscious Laura (Sharon Stone), now the widow of a dead stock-car driver, lives in a trashy frame house with a curiously frank teenage daughter (Alexis Dziena) named -- wouldn't you know it? -- Lolita. Neat, nervous Dora (Frances Conroy) and her grinning husband erect grim, pre-fab mansions in a brain-dead suburb. The dreamy ex-lawyer Carmen (Jessica Lange) has a new career communicating with animals (her cat rightly tells her that Don has a "hidden agenda") and a new sexual lifestyle. Best of all, hard-edged Penny (Tilda Swinton) has turned into a rural biker chick with a couple of nasty rednecks lurking out in the barn. Like the others, she's the recipient of the protagonist's way-easing pink bouquet. But Penny isn't buying. "What the fuck do you want, Donny?" she snarls at her uninvited guest.

What the fuck does Donny want? It's clear that he doesn't really know, and if his little roundup of the strays gives him any better sense of history or consequence, Jarmusch wisely lets us draw those conclusions on our own. Does the hero, with his impassive mug and his exhausted demeanor, discover who the mother of his child is? Don't count on it -- not in a Jim Jarmusch film that so intrigued the French in its fetching existential ambiguities that it won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Does he find his son? Don't bank on that one either, although Jarmusch's democratically based open-endedness does allow for some hints. Is Don now a better, more self-aware man? Happily, Jarmusch doesn't bother with that game either. If you're shopping for neatly tied bundles of plot and the rigid arcs of "character development" common to mainstream movies, look elsewhere. Whether he's playing on the road or at home, Jarmusch always throws a lot of off-speed stuff, and that's his glory.

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