It is wonderful to see Bill Murray in movies these days, transformed from the smart-mouthed wiseacre of his younger years into a master of deadpan comedic pathos. Bill Murray can convey in the subtlest twitch of an eyebrow a depth of emotional expression that other comedic actors - heck, other dramatic actors, come to that! - use full body contortions to portray. There are several directors who recognize this special genius of Bill Murray's, and write specifically to showcase his mature gifts, much as Harold Ramis did with his younger ones. Wes Anderson has included him in each of his wonderfully quirky movies; Sofia Coppola wrote the character of Bob Harris ("Lost in Translation") with Bill Murray in mind, and referred to him as her muse when she accepted the Oscar for best original screenplay; and this movie too has a starring role created just for him.
Writer and director Jim Jarmusch has worked with Bill Murray before, and captured from him my personal all-time favourite understatedly hilarious Bill Murray moment. In "Coffee and Cigarettes", hip hop stars RZA and GZA are amused to find that their waiter at a late-night cafe is none other than Bill Murray himself. When they chide him for smoking tobacco - doesn’t he know that nicotine is used in insecticides? - he comes back with
Well, it’s good if it kills bugs, isn’t it?
to which RZA replies
Are you a bug, Bill Murray?
A lesser actor would have mugged, shrugged, made some kind of amusing noise, or launched into a comic monologue. Not Bill Murray. He merely raises his eyebrows ever so slightly, tilts his head fractionally, managing to equivocate with these microscopic movements about whether he could be a bug, or bug-like, or akin to bugs in some way that he doesn't quite understand just yet. Genius, I tell you.
A word about Jim Jarmusch: if you haven't seen his movies, you need to. I'm serious. Walk away from this computer right now and go find "Down by Law" or "Dead Man" or "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". You will discover movies of great subtlety, rhythm, and cinematographic beauty (the former two in amazing black and white) that explore the difficulty of cross-cultural communication in modern America in a truly original way. For me, these are the highlights of Jarmusch's oeuvre to date, so it was a joy to find that "Broken Flowers" continues that great lineage so perfectly, and with Bill Murray in the starring role.
Here he plays Don Johnston, a long-time bachelor who has just been dumped by his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy). As she leaves him, he receives a pink letter in a pink envelope that he takes with him to his neighbour Winston's house. Winston (Jeffrey Wright) is an Ethiopian immigrant whose life seems to be the opposite of Don's. Don made a fortune in computers and retired, wealthy, to a tastefully decorated home where he lounges in track suits and falls asleep on the sofa. Winston has a beautiful wife, three jobs, and five kids, and lives in a chaotic house filled with batik African art and reggae music.
The pink letter turns out to be typewritten but unsigned, and informs Don that he has a son, now 20, who may be looking for him. Don is surprised but apathetic, unmotivated to do anything about this revelation. Winston, who loves mysteries, is intrigued, and wants to find out the truth of the matter. Who is the woman? Who is the son, and where is he? In short order Winston has talked Don into writing down the names of all the women who could be the mother (there are five); gotten their coordinates (one was killed a few years back in a car accident); booked Don flights, rental cars, and motels; and sent him off to visit each one with strict instructions to bring them pink flowers and find out if they have typewriters. Ideally, Don should bring back any typewriters he discovers so Winston can do a complete forensic analysis. Don grumbles and protests, declaring he will never go, but go he does.
The first of the women he visits, Laura (Sharon Stone), is a closet organizer whose husband, a rally car driver, burst spectacularly into flames a few years back; she lives with her flirtatious teenage daughter, Lolita. The second, Dora (Frances Conroy), has a successful real estate career with her husband Don; the three have a painfully awkward dinner together. The third, Carmen (Jessica Lange) is an animal communicator whose assistant (Chloe Sevigny) seems strangely suspicious of Don. The fourth, Penny (Tilda Swinton), lives on a farm with redneck tough guys; she's seriously hostile to Don and the guys punch Don out. He returns home, beat up and defeated, uncertain which of these women might be the one who wrote to him, and if he even has a son at all.
This film is blessed with a great supporting cast, including a number of excellent female actors, but the star of this show is Bill Murray. Much of the time he's just sitting there, pudgy and pock-marked: slouching on his couch, waiting in an airport, driving a rental car, consulting a map, staring at a wall. There's a wonderful scene where we just see his back, looking out of a motel room door, and I tell you Bill Murray can emote more sadness and loneliness and uncertainty about his life with just the silhouette of his back than most actors can with their face and voice and body engaged. The man is a genius, I swear.
Those who crave fast-paced action should never watch Jarmusch films, which move slowly and deliberately through their paces. Those who like tidy endings won't enjoy them either, for they tend to leave viewers hanging in ambiguity, uncertain of the final outcome. But those who enjoy thoughtful films that don't take themselves too seriously will love them. If that's you, see this one; it's highly recommended.