[Originally posted on 08/25/05]
If Bill Murray was Finnish, then its quite possible that he wouldve been part of a few Aki Kaurismki films already. The Finnish giants trademark dead-pan low-brow style/humor, which is Murray's speciality, has had a huge influence on Jim Jarmusch, especially early on in his career. And now it seems like he has now gone back and stolen one of Kaurismki's protagonists for Broken Flowers, his latest meditation on rootlessness and belonging. Kent Jones once said that Bill Murray is not an "actor," and since Jarmusch has never particularly liked actors, this is a perfect match between these two individuals. In the film, Murray plays Don Johnston, an aging Don Juan who, with much help from an Ethiopian neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), goes on a trip to locate the woman who has sent him a letter claiming that he has a son.
The sort of world Jarmusch usually creates in his films is never quite "realistic," and its not meant to be so (a great example of this would be his 1999 feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, with a modern day Samurai patrolling Jersey City). So theres no need to be alarmed even if its quite unlikely that an Ethiopian with five kids would be living next door to someone like Murray with his posh pad. Nevertheless, Jarmusch, as he establishes with a tracking-shot early on, wants us to compare the differing environments of the two individuals. As for the "Don Juan" talk, well, its quite easy to decipher that from the film Murray is watching on his HD set, but people whove actually seen that film (Alexander Kordas The Private Life of Don Juan ) will note that the old film also had an aging Casanova trying to reconnect with his old flames. (Frankly, I have an easier time buying Murray as a Don Juan than as someone who made money with computers, whatever the hell that means.)
Broken Flowers has wit and charm to spare. Its also -- for the most part -- meticulously observed and exquisitely arranged, but Jarmusch, unlike Dead Man (1995) and the aforementioned Ghost Dog, never quite manages to study and explore the various clichd elements he establishes once our Don Juan hits the road. The "Lolita" segment is practically saved by Bill Murrays "non-reaction" reaction even though Jarmuschs act here seems more like a Payne-esque riff on mid-American aloofness to our literary and cinematic worlds. And the subsequent segment is over-acted and directed, so it ends up being quite rigid, right down to a block of rice staring Murray in the face. But Jarmusch and Murrays journey finishes up strong with the third segment featuring the funniest line the film. We also start noticing what kinds of problems these relationships might've had.
Jarmusch's musical choices -- from The Greenhornes "There is an End" to Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" -- are on the mark, as usual. But here its the various Jazz tunes from Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke that help establish and keep a certain mood right till the end. Murray, whose segment with RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan was the sole interesting aspect of Jarmusch's previous effort Coffee and Cigarettes (2004), gives a minimalist "non-performance" performance which is the best of his career. He basically controls the film with his eyes and thats quite a task. And he even comes through in the scene in which he is required to act. That scene takes place near the end of his journey and it gives the film some weight that it lacked. One only wishes that Jarmusch would've dropped his quizzically cool act for a few more sequences with heart, only because a film like this required it. He does finish the film strong, though, leaving quite a few possibilities for us to mull over. But unlike Stranger than Paradise (1984), which I still believe is his best film, or even Dead Man, and very much like its own protagonist, its likely that Broken Flowers will not mature with age.
*Available on DVD (Universal) in the U.S.