Bill Murray as an aging Don Juan? The same guy who, as Todd, used to give Lisa Loopner noogies? I realize that Murray is launched on one of those second acts that American lives aren't supposed to have ' that of master thespian, everything whittled down to essences. And I loved him in Lost in Translation. But in Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch's ode to love American-style, Murray has to carry the entire movie on his slumping shoulders. And I'm not sure that mug of his ' the most expressive inexpressive face since Buster Keaton's ' is enough to pull us through. Don't blame Murray. He delivers what he was asked to deliver: next to nothing, comic touches so subtle even he may not know they're there. And don't blame Jarmusch. He delivered what he intended to deliver: a movie as empty as its hero's soul. Blame ' oh, I don't know ' life.
When we first meet him, Murray's Don Johnston is about to be left by yet another girlfriend, this one played by Julie Delpy. It's easy to see why: Don doesn't appear to have a pulse. Minutes go by with him just sitting there. And the camera just sits there with him. Has he experienced some trauma we're unaware of? Or have all the women he's left behind taken a toll? Hard to say, but when an anonymous letter arrives ' red ink on pink stationery ' with the news that he may have fathered a son back in the day, he hits the road to interview the most likely maternal candidates. Not without help, though. His neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright, providing some comic relief), goads him into it, mostly to satisfy his own private-eye jones. Without goading, Don would remain on his couch, curled up in the fetal position.
Thus begins one of the least promising journeys across the American blandscape since Jack Nicholson toured Nebraska in About Schmidt. But Jarmusch is known for making something out of nothing, and the movie starts to grow on you as Don pays a visit to some of our most beautifully intriguing, intriguingly beautiful actresses on the far side of 40. First up is Sharon Stone as the recently widowed wife of a NASCAR driver. A professional closet organizer by trade, she fails to tidy up Don's life, but she does offer him a warm bed and a warning bell in the form of her daughter, a nubile teenager named, of all things, Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Next up is Frances Conroy as a former hippie chick who now sells prefab designer homes. Then there's Jessica Lange as a woman who talks to animals for a living. Finally, there's Tilda Swinton as a motorcycle mama.
It's difficult to figure out what Jarmusch wants us to get out of each individual encounter, despite the actresses' deft character sketches. Collectively, the women don't exactly present a flattering portrait of American womanhood. And you begin to think that it's not the way he's treated women that will send this Don Juan to hell, it's the way they've treated him. Surely that's not what Jarmusch had in mind. Surely he's reaching for a deeper, more existential take on our contemporary lives of quiet desperation. Shot in what Jarmusch calls "Generica," Broken Flowers has the visual appeal of a used-car lot. And it's full of all those in-between moments that are usually left out of movies ' the uncomfortable silences, the awkward comments, staring at the carpet. Some will appreciate the attempt to plumb the depths of spiritual emptiness. Others won't.
I felt right at home.