A Look Back: “Broken Flowers”.

One of the first things we see in Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is a woman leaving a man. The man is named Don Johnson and is played by the papal saint of bemused cool, Bill Murray. We’re told that Don is a playboy and a ladies man, but he hardly carries himself like one. He mentions at one point that he made his fortune in computers, but he doesn’t appear to own one. When first we see him, he’s slumped on his couch in an ill-fitting tracksuit, alternating between a black and white film and Saturday morning cartoons. “I just can’t be with an over-the-hill Don Juan anymore” is the response he gets from the gently disappointed woman, played by Julie Delpy, who leaves him lonely at the doorstep. As we survey Don’s stolid inner space, we wonder how she stayed as long as she did.

The only other thing that precedes this marvelous scene is a credits sequence in which a letter in a pink envelope travels to Don’s doorstep by way of post. It is the letter that will change the course of Don’s life. The letter states that over the course of Don’s long and sexually fruitful life, he fathered a son with one of his many girlfriends — one who, understandably, he’s been estranged from. Don is ultimately urged to decipher the authorship of the letter through his neighbor Winston, played in a soulful comic performance by that chameleonic character actor Jeffrey Wright. In many ways, Winston is what Don is not: he’s cheery, good-tempered, smokes weed, and retains the boundlessly curiosity of an amateur sleuth, even as he works three jobs just to provide for his loving wife and adorable children. At Winston’s behest, Don hops in a rental car with a laundry list of ex-girlfriends, and hits the open road.

Now, one can imagine this same premise being played for dumb yuks, or even for gross melodrama. But this is Jim Jarmusch we’re talking about here. This is the same filmmaker who turned jailbird camaraderie into black-and-white beatnik poetry in the dazzling “Down by Law”, and who cast Johnny Depp as a drifter named William Blake in an acid Western called “Dead Man” that was, by some people’s standards, everything a typical Western should not be. Jarmusch never goes the easy route, but he’s hardly in a hurry either. Instead, he slows down the pace and invites us to observe how a guy like Don — who, over the course of the movie, reveals himself to be a charming man nursing a soul that is fractured on some fundamental level — was capable of affecting all these different women’s lives.

Or how these women’s affected Don’s life, is what I should say. Because that’s what’s really radical about “Broken Flowers”: whereas female characters often exist to serve the action of the men in the plot, spurring them on in their ambitions while patiently waiting to be tucked into bed, Jarmusch is more interested in how these strong, funny and brave women colored Don’s existence — and how they may have permanently altered his. Don himself is mostly a blank slate when the movie begins, and Murray takes his already removed demeanor to a minimalist extreme. With every new encounter, we learn a little bit more about Don and where he came from, what his motives are, what drives his soul and what has brought him out to this strange limbo where the ghosts of his past just can’t seem to leave him alone.

Few American directors capture the beauty of the open road quite like Jim Jarmusch. I am reminded of the scene in the director’s breakout work “Stranger than Paradise” where two deadbeat card sharks played by jazz musician John Lurie and former Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson simply bathe in Zen-like silence as they commandeer a friend’s rusty bucket of a car through a snowy grid of Midwestern freeway. “It’s funny,” one of the characters muses. “You go some place new and everything just looks the same.” There’s also the pitch-perfect final shot of the director’s rambling Memphis-set comedy “Mystery Train,” in which a trio of no-good drunk criminals hop in a beautiful Cadillac to hitch a ride out of town, the muggy glow of the hot Southern sun shining down on them.

In “Broken Flowers,” Jarmusch captures Don’s journey with his characteristic laid-back bemusement and fascination with the tiny moments of poetry in everyday life. For a great deal of the time, Don simply cruises through the verdant backroads of upstate New York — a land of greasy spoon diners, nondescript motels and the occasional bland McMansion — all to the propulsive jazz tunes of Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke, which occasionally sounds like a droll spin on the score for a 60’s spy movie, lending Don’s quest an understated note of intrigue. And yet, for every gorgeous, dialogue-free sequence of Don simply driving and driving, there’s a moment of sneaky and very real emotional power. I think of the scene in which Don rides a city bus while listening to two energetic teenaged girls talk about a pair of boys they’re going to meet later. Near the back of the bus, a sullen, handsome young man in a sports coat and cheap sunglasses — looking very much like one of Jarmusch’s typical stoic fringe-dwellers — simply stares out the window as the girl’s conversation inevitably drifts toward him. Is this Don’s son, the author of the letter? Is he a spiritual heir to Don’s unique case of metaphysical malaise? Jarmusch never spells this last part out for us, but the implications he leaves us with are tantalizing.

“Broken Flowers” was release in the midst of Bill Murray’s career resurgence that took shape sometime between the early-to-mid aughts. It’s part of what I and some other critics have referred to as a loose, unofficial trilogy about melancholic father figures, along with Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. In all three films, Murray plays a weathered and world-weary variation on the deadpan smartass persona he perfected in the 80’s comedies of Harold Ramis and his stint on SNL. “Lost in Translation” is arguably the most beloved of these movies, though I find it ultimately more stimulating as an aesthetically refined art object than as a story that’s supposedly about flesh-and-blood human beings. “The Life Aquatic” is a more bizarre, divisive film, though it’s also one of Mr. Anderson’s most overlooked and misunderstood works. The entire film exists as an arch meta-parody of filmmaking and the storytelling process itself, and the beauty of Murray’s performance in Anderson’s loopy adventure-comedy comes from its gentle suggestion that he’s forgotten where his made-up fantasy begins and his real life ends.

By comparison, Murray’s turn in “Broken Flowers” is whittled down to its very essence. There’s very little of Steve Zissou’s randy wisecracking, and the character is almost spiritual in his detachment from everyday things whereas Bob Harris of “Lost in Translation” merely seemed bored and adrift in a foreign land. Murray has been giving different versions on these three outstanding performances in the last couple of years, and he’s stooped to the level of some fairly low projects as of late (“Rock the Casbah,” anyone?). And yet, watching “Broken Flowers,” whether it’s your thing or not, it’s hard to deny that Jarmusch found his perfect leading man with the former gopher-hunting caddy. The director understands the power and legacy of Murray’s screen persona and he does his own sly, cheeky riff on it while still paying homage to what’s always worked, like a jazz musician playing an old standard while boldly improvising new strokes.

“Broken Flowers” shouldn’t be anyone’s first Jim Jarmusch movie. For me, that honor would have to go to “Down by Law,” or perhaps his criminally underrated hip-hop/samurai opus “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”. But the film is wistful and beautiful and observed with a tremendous degree of love and patience, and watching it provides a window into the soul of both its maker and its star. It’s a sad and funny puzzle of humanity, a film about the need to let go and also the need to search for answers, as well as the weirdly circuitous of ordinary human interaction. The jury is still out, as far as I’m concerned, as far as whether or not “Broken Flowers” is Jarmuch’s best work. What is almost beyond question is that it is the director’s most personal and deeply felt project to date, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

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