Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Film Review: "Broken Flowers"

There is a lot going on in Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers": it is, to varying degrees, a mystery story, a character study, a road picture, a comedy, and a drama. The film stars Bill Murray as Don Johnston, a guy who made a fortune in computers and who now seems content to idle away in front of his widescreen TV.

On the same day that Johnston's live-in girlfriend leaves him, a mysterious letter arrives in a pink envelope, unsigned, without a return address or legible postmark. The letter is purportedly from an old flame, who informs him that twenty years back she had had his son and the boy might be looking for his father. Though Don seems surprised by the news, he resolves to do nothing about it. After much sleuthing, planning, and cajoling from his neighbor, Winston, Don is persuaded to try tracking down the boy and his mother first. One wonders whether Don is moved by a desire to find his long-lost son or if he simply has nothing better to do.

And so, after narrowing the list of maternal possibilities down to five women (which is whittled to four after Winston learns one is dead), Don embarks on his journey as "a stalker in a Taurus," as he puts it. The odyssey is like an inside-out version of "Flirting With Disaster," minus the madcap hijinks. Though the scenes with Don's former lovers are sprinkled with hints and clues about the letter writer's identity, the film leaves open several possibilities that I won't ruin here.

It is important to note that no one but Bill Murray could have pulled off the role of Don; as Roger Ebert has noted, Murray is perhaps the only actor who can convey emotional depths with little more than a look in his eye or an almost imperceptible change of expression. Indeed, Jarmusch wrote the part of Johnston with Murray in mind.

Stylistically and thematically, the film is vintage Jarmusch. He doesn't beat the viewer about the face with his style but moves the plot forward with a minimalist approach; quiet fades between scenes and minimal dialogue work just fine here. The characters interact so well with nonverbal cues and awkward silences that the absence of clever dialogue never seems stark or contrived.

Visually, Jarmusch's choices are wise. The film is set in early autumn, which parallels Don's own inevitable slide toward twilight (but not without hope of rebirth thanks to a son). Feminine symbols such as flowers and the color pink are featured prominently and recur throughout the film. Many shots are used to illustrate the banalities of travel; airplanes taking off, Don in the car on a dull stretch of road, Don consulting his map, Don settling in for another night in a seedy and depressing motel, etc. I loved these scenes, not because they were particularly interesting, but because they helped maintain a rhythm and they suggested that the journey was as important as the destination.

Murray and Jarmusch have created an intriguing, enigmatic character in Don Johnston. By most objective measures, he is a success: he cashed out of a thriving business and is popular with women and children, and yet, he seems oddly unfulfilled and melancholy. By the end we are left wondering whether the journey was worthwhile; is Don better or worse off after his encounters? Ah, but perhaps that's looking at things the wrong way: that Don seemed to give a damn is reason enough to be hopeful for him.


Wayne Engebretson said...

That was a great review, J; you make me want to hang up my reviewer's cap. I like Jarmusch a lot -- this one'll be going on my Netflix queue.

J Ballot said...

Thanks for the kind words, Wayne, but don't you dare hang up your reviewer's cap -- your pithy and insightful comments on film are greatly admired.

After finishing this review I was worried it would come off as a pale imitation of a Roger Ebert piece, so your compliments mean a lot.

I look forward to your thoughts on "Broken Flowers."