Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Broken Flowers (2005)

Broken Flowers (2005)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch inspired by an idea from Bill Raden and Sara Driver.
Starring: Bill Murray (Don Johnston), Jeffrey Wright (Winston), Julie Delpy (Sherry), Alexis Dziena (Lolita), Sharon Stone (Laura), Frances Conroy (Dora), Christopher McDonald (Ron),  Chloë Sevigny (Carmen's Assistant), Jessica Lange (Carmen), Tilda Swinton (Penny), Pell James (Sun Green), Mark Webber (The Kid).

When writing about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou recently as part of my series on Wes Anderson, I noted that I thought Anderson misused Bill Murray in that movie – that the movie required Murray to be too active, to drive too much of the plot, when Murray’s gifts are primarily reacting to others around him, more than driving the plot itself. A year after Anderson misused Murray (the only time in their fruitful collaboration that Anderson has), Jarmusch used Bill Murray perfectly in Broken Flowers. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film – “No actor is better than Bill Murray at doing nothing at all, and being fascinating while not doing it.” That perfectly describes Murray’s performance in this film – which is one of his very best.

Murray stars as Don Johnston, who latest younger girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delphy) has decided to leave him – telling him she doesn’t want to be with an “aging Don Juan” anymore and complaining that she treats him like his mistress even though he’s not even married. Don doesn’t put up much of a fight when she leaves – he’s been through this before – he knows the drill. Then one day a letter arrives in the mail – it’s unsigned and on pink stationary. In it, someone claiming to be an old girlfriend tells Don that he has a son – now 19 – and he’s decided to leave to look for his father – even though he knows nothing of the man. She just thought he should be warned in case he does in fact track Don down. Don tells his friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) about the letter – and Winston thinks he should track down this woman to determine if he does in fact have a son. The problem is that Don thinks it could be one of five different women. He gives the list to Winston, who makes the arrangements for Don to go and visit the women one at a time – well, at least four of them, because the fifth died in a car accident a few years before. Don, begrudgingly, decides to take the trip.

So Don sets out, driving from house to house (“I’m a stalker, in a Taurus”, he complains to Winston over the phone) on a journey into his past, and gets four vastly different reactions from the women he has left behind. The first, Laura (Sharon Stone), holds no grudges – and is happy to see Don, invites him in, and he even spends the night. The comic highlight of this segment is Laura’s daughter, the appropriately named Lolita (Alexis Dziena), who is casually half dressed the whole time unless she is completely naked, but has either perfected her act of naiveté, or really doesn’t understand what she is doing.  This is the happiest stop for Don – even though he never manages a smile.

From there, it’s onto Dora (Frances Conroy) – a woman who lives a picture perfect life, in a picture perfect house in a picture perfect suburb with a picture perfect husband, Ron (Christopher McDonald), serving picture perfect dinners and is perfectly, utterly miserable. The woman Don once knew – who we catch a glimpse of in an old photograph – is gone. Dora seems on the verge of tears the whole time, and can barely make eye contact with Don, let alone speak. She is a broken woman – although precisely what broke her is never stated, only hinted at.

Then there’s Carmen (Jessica Lange) – who wanted to be a lawyer when Don knew her all those years before, and now has a lucrative career communicating with animals – she cannot “read animals minds”, but she can communicate with them – if they want to tell her something, she can hear it. She gained this power when her dog – Winston – died many years ago. She’s friendly to Don – but quite clearly wants nothing to do with him (“Do you want to get a drink later?”, I don’t drink”, “Something to eat then?”, “I don’t … eat”). There’s a passive-aggressive way she – and her assistant (Chloe Sevigny) deal with Don that makes it clear he isn’t wanted.

That passive-aggressive behavior is at least preferable to what Don gets when he visits Penny (Tilda Swinton – in her first Jarmusch movie – she’s been in the only two he’s made since). She doesn’t attempt to hide her contempt for him, and he ends up getting beat up for his trouble – and never really gets an answer from her.

In many ways, Broken Flowers is the most mainstream, conventional film of Jarmusch’s career. His penchant for long takes is still apparent – but not as noticeable here, as he gives the film a more typical “Sundance” look than any of his other films. The screenplay is also a touch more conventional – certainly when compared to his two prior features (not including the short film collection Coffee & Cigarettes) Dead Man and Ghost Dog. He fills the cast with stars – although that’s not all that new to Jarmusch – he is working with many of them for the first (and so far last) time. This was, as far as I know, the only film Jarmusch has made directly for a branch of a studio instead of finding independent financing – and it shows a little bit.

Yet just because Broken Flowers is slightly more conventional that most of Jarmusch’s work, that doesn’t mean it’s worse. The film is also the most conventionally satisfying of Jarmusch’s career – yet still does leave the ending daringly ambiguous. The movie provides a few different answers at the end of the film, but no real resolution - and when you consider Dora’s line earlier in the film “I didn’t think I could be a good mother to Ron’s children”, which doesn’t exactly confirm that she doesn’t have any children, just not Ron’s children, or if you consider that someone could have been writing on behalf of the one woman who died, while posing as her, the film implies even more possible solutions. But Don may never get the answer – look at the sad, mournful way he looks at a young man driving by in a car in the film’s haunting final shot. For him there is no closure – and perhaps he doesn’t deserve any. Any man, who when faced with a possible child of 19, that comes up with five different women who could be the mother, obviously has some issues with women – something confirmed by the women’s reaction to Don when he shows up. Some may have moved on with their lives, but they aren’t really interested in Don anymore – or reliving old times – except for Laura, of course.

What Murray does in Broken Flowers is quietly brilliant. I have never seen Murray look so sad before – or since – in a movie. He’s reached an age – he was in his mid-50s then – when his life is set. He has become a success – has lots of money that he made with computers, but he doesn’t like his career (he doesn’t even own a computer). He sits and stares sadly at the TV. His one friend is Winston – and he sees that Winston has chosen the opposite life of his – one woman, many kids – and seems perfectly content. Whereas Don has lived the life that we are told many men would love – hoping from one beautiful woman to the next – and has been left empty – longing for something more it’s too late for him to get.
All of this probably makes Broken Flowers seem more of a downer than it really is. The film is funny – but like with all of Jarmusch’s film, it’s a subtle humor – not really laugh out loud funny, but something a touch quieter and deeper. This is probably as mainstream of a film as Jarmusch is ever going to make – and it still stands out from the pack of the regular Sundance indies we see every year. It’s a deeper, darker film. And it’s one I find that grows in my mind each time I watch it.

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