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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: Broken Flowers (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Bill Murray

Seldom has a protagonist been so passive in his journey of discovery. He is nudged forward only by the enthusiasm of his neighbor and without that, he might never even have tried to learn the identity of the woman who has sent him a letter revealing that he has a 19 year old son. As the quiet man at the film's centre, Bill Murray delivers one of his best performances, one which is so understated and deadpan that it almost ceases to exist, and yet is nevertheless compelling and engaging. As a film fan, I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that this was my introduction to writer/director Jim Jarmusch, but I'll definitely be seeking out more of his work.

Murray stars as Don Johnston, an aging Lothario and retired computer entrepreneur. As the film opens, his girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy) is leaving him and a mysterious pink envelope arrives with the mail. The letter inside the envelope reveals that Don fathered a son, and that the son may be on his way to track him down and meet him. The letter is unsigned and Don's plan, at first, is to do nothing about it. When his neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a mystery novel enthusiast, reads the letter, he decides that the thing to do is investigate. He has Don make a list of the women who may have written the letter and then he goes about not just finding them, but making travel arrangements for Don to visit each of them and look for clues. Don is reluctant but Winston persists and Don sets off on his journey to visit the four women who may be the mother of his son, and one woman who has been ruled out as a possibility because she's been dead for five years.

Don's first stop is to see Laura (Sharon Stone), who turns out to be the only of his ex-girlfriends who is unreservedly happy to see him. Laura is the widow of a Nascar driver and mother of a teenage daughter named Lolita (Alexis Dziena) who, despite being unaware of the literary connotations of her name, nevertheless tries to live up to it while she and Don are alone. Next Don visits Dora (Frances Conroy), now a successful real estate agent, and has quite possibly the most uncomfortable dinner with her and her husband, Ron (Christopher McDonald), in which the conversation is vague to the point of madness. The third stop brings Don to Carmen (Jessica Lange), once a lawyer but now an "animal communicator" (not a psychic, as she keeps telling Don) and who has a daughter living in Sweden and an overly possessive assistant (Chloe Sevigny). Next Don goes to Penny (Tilda Swinton), the least eager to see him, and then he ends his journey at the grave of Michelle. He brings pink flowers to each of the women and examines each of their homes for signs of pink stationary, and each woman provides a hint that she might be the woman behind the letter.

Whether or not Don figures out who wrote the letter is sort of irrelevant in this film where it truly is the journey that matters and not the destination. Any one of the four women Don visits could plausibly be the mother (also plausible is Don's suspicion that Sherry may have written the letter just to mess with him), but what really matters is the way that the knowledge that he has a son out there, somewhere, opens Don back up to life. When we meet him at the beginning of the film, he seems all but dead, content to just sit on his couch and do nothing. Although Sherry accuses him of still being a dog, it's difficult to imagine the Don of the beginning of the film having much of an extracurricular love life since he seems to have such difficulty rousing himself to just exist at all. Once he learns that he has a son and resigns himself to looking for the boy's mother, suddenly he sees possibilities around every corner. His son could be the young man on the airport shuttle with him. He could be the guy hanging around outside Don's favourite restaurant. He could be the guy in the back of the car that's just driven by. Broken Flowers isn't so much about providing answers as it is about embracing and engaging with possibility and with life itself.

Broken Flowers moves slowly and in the end there isn't much more to the plot than the premise - man gets mysterious letter, investigates the possible senders - but it is a very entertaining movie. Murray is terrific in this incredibly low key role, turning in a performance that is funny even in its stillness, and his performance is rounded out by a solid supporting cast, whose characters bring the energy to the story that Murray's can't. Broken Flowers may be small in scale, but it's one of the hidden gems of the last decade of American cinema.

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