Review Date: 8.16.05
What’s in a name? Well, in Broken Flowers, the new Jim
Jarmusch movie, starring Bill Murray, plenty. Murray’s
character is named Don Johnston, that’s with a T. The
running gag is that Murray’s character is an aging Don
Juan, a man who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em. And we
could say that his name fits the movie to a T. When he introduces
himself to strangers, they never hear the T anyway. And without
it, the name becomes Don Johnson, or, for the purposes of this
film – Don Juan’s son. And Don Johnston’s son, real or conjured, is at the very
heart of Broken Flowers.
This film is part road trip, part mystery, and all character
study. It opens with a gloved hand dropping a pink envelope
into a big blue mailbox. We follow it, as by truck, plane and
letter carrier, it is delivered to Don Johnston’s home.
The letter’s arrival corresponds with the departure of
Don’s nubile live-in girlfriend, Sherry, played by the
wonderful Julie Delpy. Her leaving is just enough to make him
rise from his plush sofa, where he’s been watching “The
Private Life Of Don Juan” on a big screen TV.
What he’s really feeling is difficult to fathom, masked
as it is by Murray’s trademark deadpan demeanor. “What
do you want?” is about all he can manage to say. “What
do you want?” Sherry shoots back. And compares Don’s
situation to Winston’s, the man next door with a wife,
five kids, three jobs and a palpable happiness.
We’re about three minutes into the film now, so I’m
not spoiling anything for you. And if you’ve seen the
previews, you know what’s in that pink envelope. It’s
a short note, apparently from an old flame. It informs Don that
almost twenty years ago he fathered her son. She’s giving
Don a heads up. The son is on the road, searching for his father,
and he’s quite resourceful, writes the mom, who declines
to identify herself.
In short order, Winston, an amateur sleuth, has cajoled Don
into hitting the road himself. The plan is that Don will visit
the four most likely suspects. The trail is decades old, but
Winston uses the internet to track them down. He even arranges
an itinerary for Don. And now the adventure begins.
What will Don find as he revisits his past? He’s not even
convinced that the letter is genuine. Well, there’s clearly
an emptiness in Don, and it’s larger than the big house
he lives in, and the considerable fortune he made in business.
Ostensibly, he’s trying to find the mother of his son,
which of course means he’s trying to find his son. But
then what? That’s part of the mystery. Who’s the mom? Who’s
the son? Is there a son? And so what?
Don’s been coached by Winston to look for clues –
tell tale signs of boyhood at the homes of his former lovers,
and anything pink, which might blow the mom’s cover. Naturally,
the red herrings, or pink herrings, leap onto the screen.
Most of the critics are likening Murray’s role to his
last several films, but to me, this feels much more like the
scenario in Ground Hog. In that film, Murray’s character
was, like Sisyphus, condemned to repeat the past, with the elegant
twist that if finally, he learned from it, he could move on.
In Broken Flowers Murray’s character has more to learn
and much less time in which to learn it. He’s gray haired
now, and burdened with a stifling ennui.
If there’s a pivot point in Broken Flowers, I think it
may come in a short graveyard scene toward the end of the film.
But if you like your mysteries tidied up, Broken Flowers may
prove disappointing. With that caveat, I recommend Broken Flowers.
Murray’s great performance proves once again that less
is often more.