Broken Flowers opens with Don Johnston (Bill Murray) being dumped by his latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy). He claims to be upset although he doesn’t really show much emotion at all, save for the wounded look he gives when she calls him an “over-the-hill Don Juan.” That one stings. At some level, Don knows that she’s right. Now clearly 50-ish, Don he has never married and his romantic life has been a string of failed short-term relationships. He seems like the kind of guy who needs to be with a woman at all times, yet can never bring himself to be emotionally present.
A few days after the breakup, Don receives a letter printed in red ink on pink stationary. It is from a former flame – one from twenty years ago, the letter claims – yet there is no signature and no return address. The writer informs Don that he unknowingly fathered her child nearly two decades before. The now-grown boy has taken off in search of his birth father and, depending on what information he can gather, may eventually find his way onto Don’s doorstep. At first, Don tries to simply ignore the letter. His next door neighbor and friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) is an internet freak who fancies himself a master detective. He talks Don into making a list of all the women who could have possibly sent the letter. Then, based on that information, Winston tracks down their addresses on the net and convinces Don to visit each woman (under the guide of “checking in”) to see if any clues can be uncovered.
This seems like a fundamentally bad idea to Don, who isn’t sure he wants to know whether the paternity claim is true or not. His icy attitude melts enough for him to board a plane and visit several of his old flames. The first is Laura (Sharon Stone), who lives in quasi-poverty. Laura has a teenage daughter named Lolita, and the girl seems determined to live up to her Nabokov-inspired moniker. Next is Dora (Frances Conroy), a former hippie who now lives a very conservative lifestyle as a real estate agent. Jessica Lange plays Carmen, an “animal communicator” whose cat is suspicious of Don’s motives. The trail continues to the home of Penny (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), whose lifestyle could fuel an entire Jeff Foxworthy routine were it not so sad. By far, though, the most revealing encounter Don has is with an old flame we never see.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal what Don learns (or doesn’t learn) from each encounter, but they are all significant in their own way. We’re never told much about Don’s relationships with these women, but we can guess things from the way they react to seeing him again. Some of them are glad to see him, while others react negatively. Everything we need to know can be inferred from his encounters. For instance, while visiting Dora, her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald) shows off a picture of his straight-laced wife as a young hippie chick. When he leaves the room for moment, Don says, “Didn’t I take that picture?” Dora says that he did. From their exchange, we can tell that she probably felt freer to be her real self with him than she does with her husband.
Moments like that help us zero in on the story’s real mystery, which is not the identity of the letter writer, but the identity of Don Johnston. How did this guy end up romancing so many different women? Why did he never settle down with any of them? Is he a misguided soul or a misogynist? Has he achieved any significant level of happiness in his life? Could he ever actually be a father? Because he has himself emotionally walled in, all we really know about Don comes from the women he has dated. One by one, the encounters reveal something about Don, and by the end we feel like we know this man better than we initially thought we would. And if we don’t understand him completely, that’s okay because he doesn’t necessarily understand everything either – he just understands himself a little more in at least one crucial way. Even as he’s making his journey, Don encounters a number of other young women (a girl in an airport, a receptionist, a flower store clerk) whom he sizes up. You can tell that he’s wavering between what he’s naturally inclined to do – which is pick them up – and what he knows is in store if he continues down the path he’s been on for so long.
Broken Flowers is less about the things that are said and more about the things that are unsaid. There are no big, overt emotional discoveries or revelations. This is a story about a man who is just beginning the process of reexamining himself. The film ends on a note that is as uncertain as it is poignant. There have been enough movies about people turning their lives around; this one is about a guy who is trying to decide whether he should bother or whether it’s too late. At the end, Don gives a piece of advice to another character. On the surface, what he says seems obvious and even a little meaningless. However, if you look deeper, the advice reveals a lot about the man giving it.
The film won the Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. Most movies are in a hurry to get to the next big dramatic scene, the next big laugh, the next big scare. Broken Flowers doesn’t feel that rush. It takes its time, letting things unfold at a pace that feels like real life. For instance, as Don travels to and from each woman’s home, writer/director Jim Jarmusch puts in driving montages featuring shots of Murray behind the wheel and passing scenery. The first time it happens, you wonder why the director is wasting time with boring shots. By the end, you realize that these scenes are not only crucial but wonderful; they give you a feeling of having made the journey alongside the central character.
Many actors like to have their big showy dramatic moments. Not Bill Murray. He has the patience to be something of a blank slate on screen. Don doesn’t show his emotions readily. You have to look deep into his eyes to extract what he’s feeling. Murray gives a brilliantly minimalist performance, seizing our attention and sympathy with just a simple bit of body language or glance of the eye. His female co-stars only have small scenes, but each delivers a performance that compliments Murray’s, thereby making the story feel authentic. I also liked Jeffrey Wright as Winston, who adds some good humor.
Broken Flowers is one of those movies that quietly got under my skin. In its willingness to read between the emotional lines, the film reminded me very much of Lost in Translation, another great Bill Murray picture. The hero is very different in each movie – as is the plot – but both have the ability to bring to the surface feelings that are familiar to many of us yet hard to verbalize. When the end credits started to roll, an awed numbness came over me; I was more moved by the film than I had expected, and I knew I had seen something great. Broken Flowers is funny and intelligent, but also incredibly humane.
( out of four)
Broken Flowers is rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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