An over-the-hill Don Juan, dumped by his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy), realizes he is truly alone & more than a little unhappy. Out of the blue an anonymous letter arrives from a woman informing him he has a child. There's no clue whom this presumed mother of his child might be, beyond the letter's assertion that this was twenty years prior.
So begins Broken Flowers (2005), one of the most commercially inclined of all James Jarmusch's films, with Bill Murray starring as the too-cleverly named Don Johnston.
If Broken Flowers had had a "happy" ending it would've been a fairly standard if ill-constructed bit of dramedy suited to the Hallmark channel.
And perhaps Jarmusch is sick & tired of film fans who wish he could still make films as brilliant & artful as Down by Law (1986) & Stranger than Paradise (1984), & if he is desirious of the Hallmark Channel so be it. But I'm not.
Only it's lack of a climax tags it as an art film striving unsuccessfully for commerce, but failing also as art. It has standard quick-edits instead of Jarmusch's trademark long shots; it has ordinary cinematography only a little better than made-for-tv; & it casts "names" instead of great faces.
The letter informed him his nineteen year old son had already set out on a road trip, probably on a quest to find his unrevealed father, but the information was merely a warning not to be surprised should the lad show up.
With the help of his pal, would-be detective Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don Johnston begins a quest to find out where he may have "family." There were five women he was with in that period. One alas has since died in an auto accident. Winston arranges an itinerary so Don can make contact with the other four.
Amusing little stand-alone scenes are strung together a mite haphazardly: Don's tea party with a little girl; the gabby teen girls on the bus; & so on. There's a stunning yet subtle jazz soundtrack (mostly by Mulatu Astatke) that helps to keep the uninteresting story from being outright dulll.
[SPOILERS ALERT!] The film persists in its its "anthology" tone, without a lot of forward momentum. He visits lady number one, Laura (Sharon Stone looking too young for the role though she's actually just the right age for it). She has a flirty Lolita-type daughter uncleverly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Her husband blew up on the race track, so it's just Laura & Lo'. She's seems almost glad to see an old flame turn up, but that's a bit ambiguous. Don boinks her then moves on before we learn nearly enough about her.
Next on the list is Dora (Frances Conroy), who lives in a sterile grey suburbia, in an amusing parody of a home. "Dora" means "Flower" & she's an ex flower child; ha ha ha. She seems at once spooked by the world, & spooky.
She sells landscaped homes with her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald), whom she seems not to love, turning her face away when he tries to kiss her. Ron insists Don stay for dinner; & the meal is as prefab as their house.
The non-story having made only trivial points that amount to nothing, Don heads on to Carmen (Jessica Lange), a professional "animal communicator." Completely nuts, she truly believes she communicates with animals. Her possessive secretary (Chloe Sevigny) is apparently but not provably her lesbian lover, as she acts so hostile to this man from Carmen's past. As with the other women encountered, Don doesn't authentically learn anything about Carmen before he's bored & moves on.
One woman left. Environments have more variety than do these personalities. On a woodland property littered with white-trashy broken down cars & motorcycles, Don visits Penny (Tilda Swinton) & her barking loathsome unclean dog. Again with the lame pun-names; Penny is obviously dirt poor. Don gets punched unconscious by a motorcycle hillbilly who has set up alpha rights around her. And once again having learned little or nothing beyond the fact that Penny turned out trashy, Don's ready to leave.
So, the quest completed, there was no evidence of his having had a son by any of these women. He decides to visit the cemetery & the graveside of Michele Pepe, bringing her flowers purchased from another punningly named character, florist Sun Green (Pell James). It's the sweetest of all the reunions because, first, you can't be disappointed in the dead, & second, Jarmusch didn't have to try to develop a female character, which as a writer-director he seems constitutionally incapable of achieving.
Throughtout, it's hard to tell if Jarmusch intended this superficiality of the women's cartoony characterizations to reflect the Don Juan superficiality of not really caring. As Don's the point of view character, of course women are all very slight figures, Don Juans being misogynists at heart. Unfortunately it seems more likely that Jarmusch personally can't see depth in women, & thus could show none in his script, hamstringing good actresses who simply couldn't save the material.
So our Don Juan returns home no better off than in the beginning. But he can't help doing a double-take whenever he sees some vagrant teenager (Mark Webber first, Homer Murray second, this latter Bill Murray's actual son). He'll probably wonder the rest of his life about every young man he encounters -- despite that there is every likelihood his ex Sherry wrote the letter as a cruel prank. [END SPOILER ALERT]
Why directors keep believing Bill Murray can become a dramatic actor just by putting on his zombie face I'll never comprehend. He's sometimes a great comic. He sucks otherwise. And this struck me as a film chiefly for the delight of bad punsters.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl