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Broken Flowers
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Review Date: 8.16
.05 & 8.17.05

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.