Possibly the most European of major American directors, Jim Jarmusch wears his influences on his sleeve and makes no bones about it – even with “Coffee and Cigarettes,” he’s not trying to make like the whiz-bang auteurs populating what’s left of today’s indie scene, presenting just enough “art” with the gloss to get the cred necessary for a fat studio deal. He’s going to make films that move like his own, slowly, and with plenty of space around the edges to doodle notes in. They’re rarely going to be anything that will send viewers out of the theater on clouds of euphoria or despair, but they’ll also always have at least one or two noteworthy things about them.
In the case of “Broken Flowers,” those noteworthy things are Bill Murray and Jeffrey Wright. Murray plays an aging womanizer named Don Johnstone (Don Juan? Get it? If not, Jarmusch has Don watch a film of Don Juan near the beginning, just to make things crystal clear) who gets dumped by his most recent young ladyfriend (Julie Delpy) on the same day he receives an anonymous letter from a former lover saying he has a 19-year-old out there who might be looking for him. So Don leaves his well-appointed but cold and dreary house to ask counsel of his next-door neighbor, Winston (Wright), a blithely cheerful Ethiopian with a wonderfully messy, child-filled domicile.
While Don, who looks so bored with life as to be nearly catatonic, doesn’t seem to care too much about this news, Winston – a budding mystery writer – is enthralled by the inherent possibilities, and soon has Don on the road following a Winston-prepared itinerary by which Don will visit each of the four women he was involved with two decades prior and find out which one is the mother. We can guess from the credits that each of those women is going to be played by one of the listed capital-A Actresses (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Tilda Swinton), who may or may not give him the answer he wants, and so there’s your movie.
As a film about a journey, “Broken Flowers” breaks pretty much all the rules. Jarmusch includes nothing in the way of local color or odd characters, and there’s no geographic specificity in any of the places Don goes, just his rented car rolling down quiet streets, a CD of Winston’s playing mellow Ethiopian tunes in the background, and shots of planes departing from nameless airports. This leaves us with the performers inhabiting this quiet and well-traveled space (how many films or novels have been structured around its protagonist revisiting their past loves?), and fortunately they’re for the most part a crack thespian unit.
Each of the actresses whom Murray tries to squeeze an answer out of brings their own particular brand of excellence to their characters, with the exception of Lange, who in what should be a plum role as a New Age “Animal Communicator,” gives a muddled, preoccupied performance. Stone and Swinton, playing down-at-heels women who’ve seen more than their share of pain, bring plenty of fire to their roles, leaving a strong imprint on the film that lasts long after Jarmusch’s flimsy dialogue has been forgotten.
But, as is perhaps appropriate in a film about an aged lothario, the story is really about the men, whether it’s Don, his best friend, or his possibly nonexistent son lurking somewhere. Murray produces another character who seems buried in suffocating pain and isolation, witness Lost in Translation or even The Life Aquatic, though occasionally something will spark Don’s ire and result in a snappy Murray line – in one of his better ones, Don complains on the phone to Winston, “Couldn’t you have rented me a Porsche or some car I would actually drive? I’m a stalker in a Taurus.”
For his part, Wright is once again effortlessly enthralling, taking over each of his too-few scenes with an enveloping warmth that makes it easy to see how he’s able to so consistently charm audiences on the New York stage; five minutes in a room with the guy and you’d do anything for him. Wright and Murray are perfectly matched, even if Jarmusch’s construct for them – Don as wealthy and aloof, Winston the bighearted workingman – is less than brilliant. The two actors help hold down what would otherwise be a somewhat thin piece of work, without them it’s just some jerk’s midlife crisis. With them, “Broken Flowers” becomes an imperfect but sometimes beautiful comic story about a man helplessly lost in his own life.