(Above [L-R]: Bill Murray and Jessica Lange)
Exes and Whys: Murray delivers again in minimalist performance of man on the verge
In Jim Jarmusch’s gripping character study Broken Flowers, Bill Murray once again stars as a successful middle-aged man who’s completely pulled together yet entirely unmoored. Don Johnston’s life is a marvel of levelheaded decision-making, from the industry in which he made his fortune (computers) to the tastefully appointed dead zone that is his house (even he doesn’t find the place comforting, choosing instead to sack out on the sofa). Yet you get the sense that he’s in the midst of an existential crisis, wondering “Is that all there is?” In Lost in Translation, Murray’s Bob Harris had to spend quality time with Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, singing Roxy Music’s “More Than This”—karaoke style—to gain new perspective. In Broken Flowers, the search for the son he didn’t know he had leads Don to places he didn’t know he needed to go.
Don’s love life, despite his reputation as a cassanova, is lacking. He has no trouble attracting women, but one gets the sense his relationships plateau early on. Think of the scene in Translation where Bob dutifully but disinterestedly sifts through carpet swatches to please his wife, and you’ll get the picture: Don is someone who eventually detaches but doesn’t actually leave. That’s for his girlfriends to do.
Broken Flowers opens with a departure like this, and with an arrival. Don’s girlfriend (Julie Delpy, in a pouty cameo) walks out on him at the same time a pink envelope is delivered containing an unsigned letter—purportedly from an ex—telling him he has a son who has just embarked on a road trip to find him. Both events fill Don with chagrin. But since this is Bill Murray, who can convey a kaleidoscope of emotions without so much as lifting the corner of his mouth, it’s a virtually unexpressed chagrin. Don would really rather forget that anything has happened; he’d prefer to sit in his dim living room, dressed in one of his striped track suits, listening to music or watching TV alone. His neighbor Winston, on the other hand, a mirthful mystery buff played with sparkling charm by Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat), can’t pass up the chance to launch a homemade investigation. If Winston seems to be looking at Don’s situation as a game, it’s just that he greets life in general with ebullience. He and Don are opposites that way, but they’re also the best of friends—an odd couple with great chemistry.
Winston prods Don to make a list of all of the women with whom he might’ve had a child years ago, then books a trip for Don to visit each of them. They turn out to be Sharon Stone (a working-class hot mama with a precocious daughter named Lolita); Jessica Lange (a pet communicator whose receptionist is played with icy jealousy by Chloe Sevigny); Frances Conroy (the quivering matriarch of Six Feet Under as a hippie-turned-Stepford-wife realtor); and Tilda Swinton (a wild-haired backwoods woman with an overprotective boyfriend). They’re four formidable actresses, and it’s a thrill to watch them play off of the deadpan Murray, and also to wonder about what their relationships must’ve been like. Stone in particular is captivating—raw and vital but laced with melancholy.
Jarmusch gives his actors plenty of room—he’s respectful, but he’s also mischievous; having the teenage Lolita prance around nude in front of Don supplies Murray with some ripe comic possibilities, and the onetime SNL star doesn’t disappoint. The movie’s open-ended conclusion might leave you wanting more—even the nebulous Lost in Translation offered some measure of closure—but that’s a small quibble.
Broken Flowers, the Grand Prix winner at Cannes earlier this year, is hilarious, poignant and immensely absorbing. The music, most of which is supplied by Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke, is also worth seeking out. And Murray, unlikely leading man though he may be, emanates so much warmth from behind that mushy mug of his that you can’t help but love him. Master of subtlety, king of pain, monarch of snark—who better than Murray to represent the functioning lonely hearts among us? Bill Murray seems permanently lost in translation, and that’s a good thing for the rest of us.