A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, R, 105 mins.
Don Johnston: Bill Murray / Winston:
Jeffrey Wright / Laura:
Sharon Stone / Dora:
Frances Conroy / Ron:
Christopher McDonald / Carmen:
Jessica Lange / Penny:
Tilda Swinton /
Julie Delpy / Carmen's assistant:
There is a small, but tender and poignant scene in BROKEN FLOWERS that completely solidifies Bill Murray’s reinvention of himself as a dramatic actor of masterful, underplayed power.
In this scene, which occurs late in the film, he arrives at the grave of an old flame from his youthful past. He leaves some flowers by the headstone and then slumps up alongside a nearby tree. He says perhaps three or four words, but let’s his body and face do all of the talking. It is one of this year’s best and most powerfully resonant moments in terms of sorrow and painful resentment. Murray dials down and plays this scene so low key where other actors would have not. If pictures are worth a thousand words than so are Murray’s eyes during this scene. No more indicative is the adage “The eyes are the windows to the soul” then during this instance of Murray showing us everything by doing very little. His eyes are pools of anguish and penitence.
BROKEN FLOWERS showcases Murray at the top of his form, and I have used the term “reinvention” in describing his role for good measure. I can’t think of another contemporary actor that has effectively, confidently, and competently made the oftentimes tricky transition from goofy, wacky, and whimsical screen comedian to introverted and quietly commanding dramatic actor the way Murray has.
Just consider his past and present resume of films: he was quintessentially sardonic and sarcastically charming in breakthrough comic roles in STRIPES and GHOSTBUSTERS, not to mention that he had a sort of crazy and manic antagonistic wit and charm in WHAT ABOUT BOB. But, his more recent work shows a different Murray at play, not to mention that they all reflect some stellar dramatic performances. He starred in Wes Anderson’s RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and was absolutely flawless in Sophia Copolla’s 2003 film LOST IN TRANSLATION. And let’s not forget his least appreciated dramatic performance as Polonius in the 2001 modern retelling of Shakespeare’s HAMLET.
All of these recent film entries display the new Bill Murray. Yes, he still shows glimpses of his cynical and sharp sense of humor in these roles, but beyond this lays an actor of an indescribable, passive strength and vitality. He has emerged as one of the cinema’s more fascinating dramatic actors as of late, one who is able to command our interest by the smallest of gestures, motions, or facial expressions. He is an actor who exists to be studied for intrinsic value. In BROKEN FLOWERS, much like in his other dramas, Murray displays very little actual emotion and is largely caustic in disposition, but if you look long and hard enough, you just may catch hints of inner vulnerability and hurt. He often communicates deeply vented feelings by saying absolutely nothing.
Murray completely carries this new film by independent and respected filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. His films have never really been looked at through the same lenses as your typical Hollywood fare. His films are, by their very nature, quirky and a little bit more than offbeat. I have enjoyed many of them (like STRANGER IN PARADISE, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, and GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI) and have hated some (like DEAD MAN and the dreadful Neil Young headlined YEAR OF THE HORSE).
In BROKEN FLOWERS he follows through again on his proclivity towards the weird, unusual, and eccentric - largely with mixed results. He takes a staple Hollywood genre and infuses his own blend of drama and comedy. The problem with the film is in its ultimate final act – it has a great setup, but very little resolution and payoff. It’s a film that basically left me liking some of the characters a lot, but not appreciating the overall story they populated. The film is taut, moody, and well meaning - I guess - but it was also a remote one. Not even Murray’s brilliant turn playing a man that is stepped in sadness and existentialist nihilism can save this film from being largely unsatisfying in the end and lacking in energy and vitality.
BROKEN FLOWERS has a very simple setup. Murray stars as Don Johnston (one rule of comedy that this film breaks – funny names are rarely very funny, and this one is the butt of too many jokes to the point of distraction). He is a man that is well off financially and has made a lot of money in computers, but is so melancholy and absorbed in low self worth that he does not even own one. As the film opens he is being dumped by his current girlfriend (Julie Delpy). She is moving out for reasons never really clear (maybe the line where she refers to him as an old-aged Don Juan reveals something). After she leaves Don’s life is placed in idle mode. He sits, listens to music, sits some more, listens to music, tries to drink some wine, and sits some more…
Things change a bit for Don with a mysterious letter in a pink envelop that is delivered to him. The letter, which is not signed, suggests to him that, 20 years ago, he fathered a son and that the boy now may or may not be looking for him. He shows the letter to his neighbour, Winston, played in a terrific performance by Jeffrey Wright. Winston is a busy man – he has five kids and three jobs, but he still manages to be an amateur detective online. Don is not sure how to react to the letter, but the armchair detective that is Winston falls in love with the intrigue. In a fit of energetic proactiveness, Winston manages to get all of the names of Don’s past girlfriends that could possibly be the mother. Not only that, but he also goes to the trouble of planning transportation, accommodations, supplies, and provides social etiquette tips (“Always bring them flowers”).
Winston’s mission for Don seems crazy, but there is a level of odd logic to it. He instructs Don to visit all of these women in an effort to extract any subtle clues from them as to whether one of them is the mother of his possible child. Any minor hints could prove to be noteworthy. He even suggests giving them all pink flowers and then watching their reactions, or even to check to see if they have a typewriter (the letter was clearly written on an old one). Don, with seemingly nothing else to do or anything to lose, begrudgingly goes along with the plan.
The women that Don visits (or completely drops in on, uninvited) are all colorful and assorted. First he sees Laura (Sharon Stone) who’s own husband was a racecar driver that was killed in action. She seems remarkably glad to see Don and is not too overly shocked that he has come far just to see her. He carefully inspects her surroundings, looking for any clues. Don even manages to stay the night, but by morning it appears that she is not the mother of his child, at least it appears that way.
The second woman he sees is Dora (Frances Conroy) who is far less receptive to Don’s visit. She is now married and her husband - Dan (the funny Christopher McDonald)- is a realtor that sells “prefabs”. Their home is as remarkably sanitized and orderly as they are. A dinner scene then ensues where the husband tries to get to know Don. Don, who is growing increasingly uncomfortable with each progressing minute, asks one too many questions until the Dan and Dora feel their own level of anxiety.
Jessica Lang plays the third and most unusual of Don’s women – Carmen – who is an animal communicator. She speaks to a person’s pet when they are clearly not able to. Of all of Don’s visits, Carmen holds her own the most against Don’s queries, but the screenplay does not really have much of a clue as to whether it should be mocking this women with spiteful ridicule or take her and her job seriously. Lange’s performance here is earnest and sincere, but perhaps lacking a bit in a satiric edge.
The fourth woman that Don sees proves to be the most guarded and volatile towards him. She is Penny, played by the unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. She’s typical white trash now and lives on land that has a front yard populated by motorcycles and engine parts. Things go relatively badly for Don here, which leads him to go see his fifth and final woman, who does not seem as much help to him, seeing as she is dead.
The film does have a playfulness and a vexing fascination with tantalizing both the viewer and Don himself. Are any of these women the mother of his child, or did he really have a child at all? Is one of these women just pulling his leg? Unfortunately, none of the women are developed into anything full or significantly interesting, and just when they become appealing the screenplay quickly leaves them and goes to the next women. There is no denying that this is Don’s story, but the film could have befitted from fleshing out the female characters a bit more.
Overall, Jarmusch’s film is largely episodic. Some of the smaller individual moments work and work marvelously, but the sum of the film’s parts do not make for a satisfying whole. I never felt like I was watching a completely cohesive and cogent story. The vignettes felt cobbled together hastily in search of a meaningful narrative. Now, a film about self-discovery could be argued as being rather disorganized and meandering as well, but BROKEN FLOWERS is a film that is short in terms of its running time, but felt long to sit through. Many scenes go on way too long and are set up without any meaningful payoff, and the ending of the film made me feel cheated in a way. The film does not have an emblematic Hollywood ending where everything is settled in happy manner, but it has no real closure whatsoever. Now, I have never minded films that had endings without promise or hope, but at least those pessimistic films had a sense of conclusion. By the end of BROKEN FLOWERS I felt like telling the screen, “I sustained my interest for nearly two hours for this?” The film, as a result, feels hopelessly random and redundant.
There is one other issue I had with the film that involved a moment of “graphic nudity”, at least as the MPAA labeled it as having. The scene in question was not so much graphic as it was needless and superfluous. Obviously, I have never shunned on-screen eroticism or nudity in mainstream films when and where it served a purpose. 2004’s THE DREAMERS had tons of flesh, but it was crucial in helping to typify the sexually liberated and experimental characters of the film during an equally promiscuous time. Yet, the small moment in BROKEN FLOWERS - with full frontal and rear nudity - served no purpose at all other than to provide a momentary shock. Now, there was build-up for one character, albeit very minor, who’s name is an ironic joke to most fans of Stanley Kubrick films. The sly and subtle reference is achieved just through the dialogue and indirect, subliminal innuendo between her and Don. But then - to hammer down the point - a moment of nudity occurs that, if you consider the probable age of the performer involved, is not only gratuitous, but also sort of creepy in its voyeurism and invasiveness. It felt more exploitative than erotic.
BROKEN FLOWERS, in the end, is a film that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. It is true that its one saving grace is a commanding performance by Murray, who manages to amplify a man who’s outward shell looks plain and ordinary, but whose inward one hides a burnt-out, middle age apathy. He is in every scene in the film and provides a real textbook exercise on sadness and gloomy tranquility. It’s a shame, having said that, because it’s an Oscar worthy performance that deserved a more involving narrative that had the presence of mind to be about something more. BROKEN FLOWERS has undeniable atmosphere and mood and is smart in its powers of observation, but it is largely light on dialogue and story and instead gets bogged down into a wasteland of puzzlement, confusion, and pungent frustration, especially in its final moments. The film is so rich in tone, but so annoyingly simpleminded in its ambiguous nature. This film just did not do justice to a character as rich and fascinating as Murray’s.
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Subsequent to my posting of my review for this film a few loyal readers have emailed me to take me to task over my comments regarding the moment of "graphic nudity". I wrote that "...a moment of nudity occurs that, if you consider the probable age of the performer involved, is not only gratuitous, but also sort of creepy in its voyeurism and invasiveness. It felt more exploitative than erotic."
Some have felt that I was giving Jarmusch a very hard time and was indirectly labeling him as an exploiter of children for obvious shock value. Now, to my credit (and the following may be considered SPOILER MATERIAL), the actress that plays Lolita looks remarkably young. She is Alexis Dziena and, according the the IMDB, she was born in 1984. This would clearly make her 21 years old. However, without having known that going into BROKEN FLOWERS, she seemed far younger than her current age, hence my comments revealing my feelings that her full frontal nude scene was "creepy in its voyeurism and invasiveness."
Obviously, since she was not a minor when she filmed the scene, I now regret a few of the things I wrote, which have proven to be a bit presumptuous. Regardless of that, this still does not change my mind about the scene's redundancy, or my view of the film as a whole.