Somewhere along the line, Bill Murray became a serious actor. As an SNL alum and star of such Academy Award winning dramas as Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, he was the obvious choice as Hollywood’s next leading man. So naturally he went and penned himself into an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which was released shortly after Ghostbusters in 1984 and flopped so hard that you might think the whale from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy made a graceful entry in comparison. And so it was back to the usual for Bill, films like What About Bob? and Groundhog Day, and The Film Which Never Existed. (Never. It was just an urban legend, or maybe a very intense fever dream.)
When did things turn the corner for Bill? I don’t know exactly, but it might have had something to do with getting gray hair. Any way you look at it, Wes Anderson cast him in two semi-serious roles in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, followed by Sofia Coppola daring to give him the lead in her fabulous Lost In Translation, and before you know it Bill Murray Is One Of The Most Respected Serious Actors In Hollywood. Who would have guessed? Not I.
But Jim Jarmusch, director of this week’s feature Broken Flowers, picked up on this trend and cast Murray as his lead. Broken Flowers is said to be one of Jarmusch’s more “accessible” films (and having seen both Stranger Than Paradise and Night On Earth, I’d have to agree), but it’s by no means a Hollywood story. The script makes absolutely no effort to conform to Hollywood norms — though from time to time it tries to head-fake you into thinking it’s about to — yet manages to be both simple and profound. The biggest problem with the film, in my eyes, is…Murray.
The film starts out with Murray’s character, Don Johnston (a retired computer magnate), watching scenes from 1934’s The Private Life Of Don Juan. Such a move is always dicey, as it immediately calls to mind one of the true pieces of wisdom brought to us by Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Never show a good movie inside your crappy movie.” In this case, we’ll put Broken Flowers’ floor quite a bit above “crappy”, but note that Jarmusch has been warned. Note not only the Don Johnston-Don Juan connection, but also the Don Johnston-Don Johnson connection, which is referred to ad nauseum.
Don’s Don Juan nature is immediately revealed as his current girlfriend leaves him, noting on her way a letter on pink stationery that has come in through the mail slot. From another lover, she assumes, though it turns out to be an anonymous letter from a former lover, claiming that Don’s previously unknown 19-year-old son has run off in an attempt to track him down. Just a heads-up, no signature, postmark unreadable, and Don is supposedly torn between interest and avoidance. I say supposedly, because here (and for much of the movie) Murray seems to fail on the whole showing-the-proper-emotion thing. OK, so his life has taken a turn for the worse and for the weird at the same time, but despite his character’s actions (consistent with a man who is both curious and relentlessly antisocial) Murray never seems to convey anything other than catatonia. You’d be hard pressed to say he didn’t master the blank stare for this film, but even someone trying to hide their feelings doesn’t go around looking pithed all the time.
But as ambivalent about the whole thing as Don is, his neighbor Winston is quite excited about solving the mystery of the pink letter. He insists that Don make a list of all the women it could possibly have been, so that he can track them down. Since Winston is not only his neighbor but his best friend, Don reserves his very highest level of disdain for him in nearly all of their encounters, but he makes a list of five names anyhow and Winston books him on a tour through his past. It turns out that one of the five died several years back in a car accident, and Don mutters a muted “I loved her”, perhaps the truest evidence of emotion in the film. Nonetheless, he sets out to meet each one in an attempt to divine (through guile, rather than simply straight up ask) which one might have sent the letter, following Winston’s advice to always bring flowers.
Things get off to an interesting start.
At the house of Ex #1, Don is greeted by the daughter of the woman he intends to meet. The first thing you should notice about her is that she is wearing pink heart earrings that look, say, exactly like the the sunglasses famously depicted on the front cover of Kubrick’s Lolita (I’m not confident the glasses appear in the film itself…) This raises huge red flags which start waving madly as she saucily invites him in and which actually burst into flames when she announces that her name is Lola — short for Lolita. Lola, for her own part, apparently is not well enough versed in the classics of pen or screen to have understood the provenance of her name, but she plays the part well, culminating in Lola’s emerging from her room talking on the phone and completely naked. It’s all over the internet, if you’d like to look. Just as Don is hightailing it out of Jailbait Central, Ex #1 finally returns from work and insists that he stay for dinner.
Things go fairly well. But it seems clear that there was no son here, and it’s another day, another ex for Don.
Ex #2 lives a sterile existence in a sterile house, keeping up the sterile pretense of a sterile relationship with a husband who…just might be sterile. The most uncomfortable scene in the movie has to be the Don-not-eating-anything-and-staring-into-space scene. In the picture depicted above, Ex #2 and the husband pretend to be glad Don dropped by while Don pretends to have been hit by Dr. Horrible’s freeze ray. (Murray is more convincing.) This scene could not end fast enough.
So Don moves on to Ex #3. This one turns out to have abandoned a legal career after losing her beloved pet dog. The trauma of her loss caused her to realize that she could understand the speech of animals, in English. Or, in other words, she’s certified batshit insane. But, it turns out that in the movies, certified batshit insane can when necessary be a lucrative occupation, and Ex #3 appears to be doing very nicely for herself as a Pet Translator for other certified batshit insane folks who also happen to have too much money on their hands. She’s incredibly dismissive of him for how nicely she acts towards him. Strike three, and we’re off to the next ex.
In a Hollywood film, Ex #4 would be the one who sent the letter. In Broken Flowers, Ex #4 lives in hicksville surrounded by a trailer-trash husband with her trailer-trash friends. Unlike the other exes, this one feigns no pleasure at seeing Don after 20 years, so Don tries a different approach. Instead of trying to divine clues about whether she might be the letterwriter, he simply asks whether she has a son. At which she gets extremely angry, causing her husband to come over and cold cock Don. Fortunately for him, he’s not dragged down to the cellar and dressed up in leather and a ball-gag, but is rather unceremoniously dumped (along with his rental car) in the middle of a field.
There is no good evidence that any of these women sent the letter.
So when Don finds himself in a florist buying yet another bouquet, you’re a bit confused as to whom he is buying them for, until he asks directions to a cemetery. The scene in the cemetery is perhaps a minute long, and the dialogue may be a grand total of two words, and it is by far the best scene in the film. Don returns home.
But as he’s getting into a taxi at the airport, he sees a jittery young man in a shabby sweatsuit (of the style he prefers) looking lonesome and travel-weary, and he silently gets the notion that perhaps this is his son searching for him. When he runs into the same traveler the next day while he’s out for lunch, he boldly strikes up a conversation, and after buying the young man lunch, they begin talking, and Don begins feeling him out. When Don awkwardly raises the subject of the kid’s father, the kid declares the subject off limits, at which point Don declares “I know you think I’m your father…” which freaks out the kid horribly, and he runs off like a hobo who has found himself in the streets of Pamplona in the second week of July. Just then, a car drives by and a young male passenger with Don’s features (the actor is Murray’s own son) takes a good long look at Don. Fin.
In the end, there is no conclusion at all, and this is exactly how the film needs to end. We don’t know who sent the letter. Of the exes, only #1 is completely implausible; nobody else opened up enough to truly eliminate themselves. Also in the running are the theories of: the girlfriend who just left him, in test or cruelty; Winston, to get him out of the house; a hoax; and who knows. What is clear is that Don’s journeys and search for his son have left him profoundly broken. Until there is resolution, every child in the streets is his own, searching for him, and he doesn’t even know if he can (or should) reach out.
Now if only Murray could have done something about the early-film catatonia.