Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Review - Broken Flowers

Late in his career, Bill Murray seems to have found his groove. Over the course of the past decade Murray’s performances have gradually become more fine-tuned and minimalist; to the point when he hardly seems to be doing anything at all, just sitting there and letting the movie happen around him. If an actor could be described as an auteur then perhaps Murray fits the bill for the way his persona has shaped so many of the recent films he’s appeared in, and it’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch has taken advantage of Murray’s singular talents for his latest picture. Both men specialise in films which are laconic, quirky and express bemusement at the world around them. Murray and Jarmusch should be a match made in heaven.

And it very nearly is. Certainly, Broken Flowers is one of Jarmusch’s most satisfying pictures in some time and in the central role it features one of Murray’s best performances. He plays Don Johnston, an ageing lothario whose latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy, in an all too brief appearance) has had enough of his lack of commitment and decides to leave him. Don hasn’t got much time to dwell on his current state though because he receives a mysterious letter on pink stationary which carries some startling news. Apparently Don fathered a child some years ago with one of his former conquests and his son, now 18, is trying to track him down.

Don has no idea which one of his former lovers has written the letter and it carries no clues, but his neighbour Winston (another typically sensational performance from Jeffrey Wright) won’t let that stop him. Winston is an amateur detective and he’s determined to help Don get to the bottom of the mystery. Together they come up with a simple plan; Don will visit the four former girlfriends who fit the bill and look for clues (a typewriter, a love of the colour pink) to try and work out which of them, if any, is the mother of his son.

Broken Flowers becomes a road movie and, in the tradition of such films, becomes a voyage of discovery for the main character in which the central plot is almost incidental. The movie may appear slight, but it slowly develops into an interesting and surprisingly touching portrait of ageing and loneliness. Don’s journey brings him into contact with four women whose lives have taken very different paths since they were with him. The first old flame he visits is Laura (Sharon Stone), a widow since her racing driver husband died; who now lives alone with her daughter, the aptly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena). His second encounter is with Dora (Frances Conroy) a former hippy chick who is now living a successful but horribly sterile existence with her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald).

Both of these encounters are masterclasses in observation and direction. The encounter with Laura is one of the film’s comic highlights with a fine performance from Sharon Stone as a widow drowning her grief in wine and an effervescent turn from Alexis Dziena. In contrast the scene with Dora - while still being hilariously funny - is a brilliantly controlled sequence with Conroy’s brittle, uptight performance superbly expressing the torment of a formerly free and easy-going person now trapped in her domestic cage. These two sequences are the best in the picture and overshadow what comes afterwards which lends the film an uneven feel.

Don’s travels take him to see Carmen (Jessica Lange) who is now an ‘animal communicator’ and may or may not be having a lesbian relationship with her secretary (Chloë Sevigny). This sequence contains a witty performance from Lange but seems the most false in the film and comes across as trying a little too hard to get laughs. The film rallies a little with the fourth woman on Don’s list (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) but Jarmusch has lost the spark which was present in the film’s first half and he struggles to regain it.

Despite this momentary lull which occurs in the film one thing remains constant throughout: Bill Murray. It’s easy to accuse Murray of simply recycling the same performance over the past few years and just as easy to claim that his lack of overt emotion invites us to look for a significance or deeper meaning where none is present. I don’t think that’s the case. When he wants to, Murray can make the act of doing nothing speak volumes and here his carefully nuanced performance draws us into Don’s story. It’s not that Murray’s doing nothing; it’s that he’s doing nothing unnecessary and is boiling down his performance to the bare essentials. The result is that even though we never get inside Don’s head, Murray somehow makes us care.

So if we never get inside the main character’s head, if he doesn’t come to some sort of resolution, what is the point of all this? Jarmusch has never allowed his films to be clearly defined and, despite this being billed as his most mainstream effort, he doesn’t change that policy. The director teasingly gives us the prospect of a resolution and then snatches it away. Many viewers will find the ambiguity of the climax frustrating but I found it far more satisfying than a pat happy ending could ever be. Jarmusch’s film takes Don full circle; he winds up back where he started and the viewers are left none the wiser, but that’s just the way the director likes it. Towards the end of the film Don explains his philosophy; “The past is gone, I know that. The future isn’t here yet, whatever it may bring. All there is is this”. It stands as an almost perfect summation of what Jarmusch’s films are all about.