Less is more in Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch's minimalist masterpiece.
A deadpan comedy about a womanizer on a quest to understand who and what he is, Flowers... could have been overwrought melodrama. But as written and directed by Jarmusch and acted by Bill Murray and a very strong cast, it's so delicately understated that it makes other films feel like a force-feeding session.
When we first get a glimpse of Don Johnston (Murray) he is, appropriately enough, watching an old movie about Don Juan on TV. He's interrupted by his live-in girlfriend, Shelly (Julie Delpy), who appears with suitcase in hand to announce she has had enough of Don’s indifference.
“I'm like your mistress,” she sputters, “but you're not even married.”
Don is so jaded, so glum, so well-insulated in his bubble of angst that he can't even protest her decision to leave.
Then the letter arrives.
Typewritten on pink stationary, the unsigned epistle (the postmark is unreadable) presumably comes from an old girlfriend who informs Don that 19 years ago she gave birth to his son. Now, the writer reveals, the boy has hit the road to search for his father. The letter is just a friendly heads-up so Don won't be too taken aback if the kid shows.
Don is willing to leave the matter at that. But his neighbor and best friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) seizes the letter as a real-life case on which he can lavish his expertise as an Internet sleuth. Winston pesters until Don comes up with a list of the women he was seeing 20 years ago. He then goes online to locate his friend's former loves, buy plane tickets, reserve rental cars and hotel rooms, and get driving instructions from MapQuest.
“Go home. Leave me alone,” Don protests, a line that doesn't seem particularly funny on the written page but is a gut buster in the context of this film.
The first 20 minutes of Broken Flowers consists mostly of conversations between Murray and Wright, and they are so spectacularly written and performed as to make one rejoice in the simple wonder of listening to people talk.
The bulk of the movie finds the dour Don on the road, dropping in unannounced on old flames while keeping an eye open for clues ... like an old typewriter or pink stationary. Or evidence of a teenage boy.
Don’s encounters with his former loves are sweet, sad, funny, violent, and just plain weird.
Sharon Stone plays a good-natured working-class gal whose teenage daughter (Alexis Dziena) is aptly named Lolita. Jessica Lange is an “animal communicator” who seems to have a thing with her receptionist (Chloë Sevigny). Frances Conroy (of HBO's Six Feet Under) is a shy real estage agent with an overbearing and jealous husband (Christopher McDonald). Tilda Swinton plays a bitter backwoods type who still holds a grudge and lives with two hairy Neanderthals.
The more doors he knocks on, the less Don knows for sure. The letter may have been an elaborate practical joke. His “son” may be fictional.
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But if Jarmusch doesn't send us out of the theater with the story wrapped up in a nice pink bow, he does give us something wonderful to ponder: The gradual, incremental transformation of Murray's Don into someone who at long last gives a damn.
When we first encounter Don he’s so inert he won’t even get off his sofa to go to bed. He just topples where he is.
By the end he's ... well, not energized, exactly, but definitely more open and outgoing. The prospect of having a child, the thought that he might actually leave something behind, has quietly reshaped his world.
Murray always has been less an actor than a reactor, and here his dry delivery, jaundiced persona, and astoundingly expressive eyes dovetail to create a wondrous portrait.
And so he’s the perfect partner for Jarmusch, a filmmaker for whom the expression “low-key” seems to have been invented. He and Murray eschew actorish tricks and melodramatic pacing. They rarely say something out loud when they can quietly suggest it.
For this reason you may find Broken Flowers almost too calm. But stare a bit into its depths and you'll find a whole new world opening up.
Other films in the series “Road Trip”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 4: It Happened One Night (1934) Not Rated
- August 11: Badlands (1973) Rated PG
- August 18: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Rated R
- August 25: Thelma & Louise (1991) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 6: Harry and Tonto (1974) Rated R
- August 13: The Straight Story (1999) Rated G
- August 20: Vacation (1983) Rated R
- August 27: Broken Flowers (2005) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.