Bill Murray: The Anti-Pacino
Broken Flowers / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
When many people think of low-budget, independent filmmaking, it’s Jim Jarmusch they think of, whether they realize it or not. The esoteric, glacially paced, often black-and-white drama about disconnected and disaffected denizens of the American wasteland — that’s Jarmusch’s early work all over. His approach, with its deliberately anti-commercial art-house tone, existential themes, and long unbroken shots, made him a darling of the critics and a nonentity to the general public. In 1999 he took a strange turn, making Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a film that combined Zen Buddhism, western philosophy, and grindhouse violence and divided audiences and critics. His most recent film, 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes, was a series of 11 vignettes loosely connected by a basic theme — people chatting over liberal doses of the titular stimulants — that was even more a love it/hate it proposition. Some found it to be a relaxed, observant series of encounters between diverse, intriguing characters while others thought it was nothing more than a self-indulgent grouping of unconnected vignettes in which nothing much happens. Now, with his latest film, Jarmusch has created a minor epic that only the most dedicated indie purist could dislike.
Broken Flowers is a road movie in the same sense that Sideways is a buddy movie — it takes on a familiar genre in order to screw with our expectations. Bill Murray — at what may well be the zenith of his recent career upswing — plays Don Johnston (that’s JohnsTon, with a T, not like the “Miami Vice” guy, as Murray wearily points out to most of the people he meets), an aging lothario who is suddenly confronted by the possibility that he may have fathered a son 20 years ago. His next-door neighbor Winston (the always reliable Jeffrey Wright), an affable Ethiopian-American amateur sleuth, prods Don to make a list of all the women he dated around the time period in question and goes online to find out where and who they are today. The next time Don sees him, Winston has prepared an elaborate dossier on his former flames and a full itinerary of his trip to visit them. Don is naturally wary. He hasn’t spoken to any of these women in almost two decades — what might he say to them? But his curiosity gets the better of him and soon he’s flying around the country and enduring a hilariously awkward sequence of reconnections.
Murray’s performance here is so good it’s just ridiculous. Something miraculous has happened to him as he’s aged; his blobby, pockmarked face has somehow become unexpectedly handsome, and he’s grown as an actor to the point that he can communicate his inner state while being nearly comatose. Think of him as the anti-Pacino, an actor whose early career was marked by bombast and audience pandering but has settled into a mode of acting that’s damned near imperceptible. With little more than a raised eyebrow or a brief moue, he takes you right into Don’s perturbed mental state. There’s never any doubt what’s going on inside his head, yet you never feel that’s he working to show it to you.
The supporting cast hardly slouches either. The big- and small-screen luminaries who play the women in his life — Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and an utterly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton — take on roles that are little more than satirical stereotypes but invest their brief scenes with a conviction that makes them almost three dimensional. Jarmusch seems a reluctant satirist — he built his career on maintaining antiquated notions of a twisted, nonconformist America — so that when he turns his attentions to satire the mockery is leavened with a heavy dose of empathy. Particularly notable in this respect is Conroy’s Dora, a pre-fabbed housing seller whose desperate pursuit of a certain kind of American Dream has trapped her in a nightmarish world of supposed comfort and convenience.
Jarmusch’s satire is soft-edged, built more on questions than answers. The ultimate question he asks is whether any of his characters is genuinely happy. The overall answer is no, but those who are more marginalized, living at the further extremes of middle-class respectability and bourgeois comforts, seem closer than those with greater material accomplishments. Of course, at the center is Don, who made a mint in computer technology and has had his pick of women for decades but feels mostly dead inside. It’s not a new moral, but it is realized with a conviction and verisimilitude that makes it feel true. Jarmusch, the consummate pop-culture outsider, has made a convincing argument for the comforts of not fitting in.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.