3½ stars (out of four)
Bill Murray has a wonderfully lost and distracted look in "Broken Flowers," the Jim Jarmusch film that won the Grand Prize at May's Cannes Film Festival. Somehow combining the whipped demeanors of a shot-down lover and a sad little spaniel, he brilliantly recalls and expands on the malaise he projected so effectively in "Lost in Translation."
Playing Don Johnston, a lifelong woman-chaser, Murray mopes throughout "Broken Flowers" with the weary gaze of a joyless man trapped in a world that gives him diversion but no pleasure. And the aftermath of happiness is actually what "Broken Flowers" is all about. It's a tale of an American Casanova, junior grade, forced to face the consequences of his past seasons of love, and it begins when Don receives a mysterious pink envelope just as his latest girlfriend, Frenchwoman Sherry (played by Julie Delpy of "Before Sunrise") is walking out on him.
Losing Delpy should be tragedy enough. But the letter, unsigned and supposedly from an old lover, makes things worse, informing the already moody Don that he has a 19-year-old son who has been unknown to him all these years. Don's searches for that old lover and progeny among a gallery that includes Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy ("Six Feet Under"), Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton, forms the crux of "Broken Flowers." It's a journey forced on him by his mystery-story-obsessed neighbor, Ethiopian computer expert Winston ("Angels in America's" Jeffrey Wright, employing a terrific accent).
Jarmusch, one of the great American masters of the road movie, soon sends Don out on the highways and byways, but with a difference. Where most of the director's previous protagonists were younger people trying to find themselves, Don seems to have found himself all too well and now searches for the alternative life or loves he left behind. As he hits a series of suburban and rural locales that range from posh ranch-house to biker hideoutcarrying the bouquets of pink flowers Winston has advised him to bring, following Winston's itinerary and listening to tapes of Ethiopian pop prepared by Winstonthe journey of enlightenment grows darker and more drizzly.
Don's weariness contrasts powerfully with Murray's more common, loosey-goosey, wisecracking-party guy-imagewhom we suspect must have existed in Don's past. But why, we wonder as we watch Don lurching from one stunning ex-girlfriend to the next, is he such a grumpy guy? It's an amazing gallery, however weird their destinies or professions. Stone is the sunny-faced single, closet-organizer Laura, with her aptly named teen daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena); Conroy is Dora, an ex-"hippie chick" turned mournful "artsy" bourgeoise with an obnoxiously cheerful real-estate-agent hubby (Christopher McDonald); Lange is Carmen, the formidably successful "animal communicator" who can barely spare him a moment from her busy schedule of pet conversations; and Britisher Swinton, in a really provocative stretch, is Penny, the foul-mouthed, long-haired American biker chick.
The dialogue is spare, the action is sparse and measured, but the actors all deliver brilliantlywith Murray, Lange and Wright heading the pack. (Another small gem: Chloe Sevigny as Carmen's nasty, perhaps intimate assistant.)
As for the star, this may not be classic Murray as we used to expect him, but it's Murray in current classic form. I prefer him when he's a more of a smartass or prankster than in the morose mode he's displayed in his recent art-film trilogy of "Lost," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "Flowers." But the sheer hint of his old explosiveness enlivens these roles, keeps them from sinking into their own malaise. In Don, Murray also manages to suggest a kind of growth in the midst of his batterings and comeuppances. The possibility of fatherhood changes himeven if the reality keeps eluding him. (There's a cameo at the end, by the way, from Murray's real-life son Homer.)
Jarmusch is a brilliant critic of the dead-ends of American culture and society and a first-rate painter of the absurdities of the Now and the traps of the Then. Here, he's having fun with one of the great sadnesses of our culture: our over-emphasis on youthful hedonism and our seeming forgetfulness of consequences. But there's a curious affirmative quality to his vision too. Each of Don's four ex-lovers has somehow found her lot, bizarre or crazy as it may be, while he remains adriftuntil the strange, moving last scene suddenly, fiercely reconnects him to life.
Jarmusch keeps a dead-level gaze and a droll take on Don, and on both his travel through the past and his immersion in the present. That's what makes the idea of an aging playboy faced with fatherhood so sad and funny. At the beginning, we sense a kind of absence behind Don's melancholy gaze, a teasing void that may signify, at least temporarily, some loss of self. But by the end, beaten and chastened, he's become somehow a whole person. A lonely one. A dark subject certainly, but in Murray's bouquet-bearing hands, it can still hand us a laugh.
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch; inspired by an idea from Bill Raden, Sara Driver; photographed by Frederick Elmes; edited by Jay Rabinowitz Elmes; production designed by ; music by Mulatu Astatke; produced by Jon Kilik, Stacey Smith. A Focus Features release of a Five Roses production; opens Friday. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: R (for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use).
Don Johnston - Bill Murray
Winston - Jeffrey Wright
Laura - Sharon Stone
Dora - Frances Conroy
Carmen - Jessica Lange
Penny - Tilda Swinton
Sherry - Julie Delpy
The Kid - Mark WebberCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times