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Broken Flowers Review

By Shawn McKenzie 08/05/2005

Jim Jarmusch is a writer/director of what is called “minimalist” movies…i.e. movies that are slow and boring.  Aside from 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, I’ve never liked any of his movies.  The tides may be changing however, because I really liked Broken Flowers…though the ending left me flat.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray), not Don Johnson (people keep confusing his name with the “Miami Vice” actor), is a man who was quite the Don Juan in his day, but he now lives in a lonely existence.  He is set for life, having made his fortune in computers (ironically, he doesn’t own one himself), but he doesn’t have anything to look forward to now.  His current live-in girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), has left him…probably because he is such a sad sack now who just sleeps and watches television.  The same day that Sherry leaves, Don receives a letter in a pink envelope and typewritten on pink stationary.  The letter was from a former lover who says that she now has a 19-year-old son, and that Don is the father.  The son might be looking for Don, so apparently she was trying to give him a heads-up.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t sign it, and she doesn’t tell Don the name of their son either.  In addition, the postmark is faded, so he doesn’t even know from where she sent the letter.  Curiosity gets the better of him, so he asks his next-door neighbor and only friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) to help him out with locating the former lover.  Winston, a family man with a wife named Mona (Heather Simms), five kids (Jarry Fall, Korka Fall, Saul Holland, Zakira Holland, and Niles Lee Wilson), and three jobs, wants to be a private detective, so he uses Don’s search for the woman as practice.  Don tries to remember all of the women that he was involved with at the time, and Winston comes up with five potential women for Don to track down.  Actually, Don will only have to visit four of the potentials, since one of them, a woman named Michelle Pepe, died in a car accident.  Winston arranges everything, from the plane trips to the car rentals, and even makes Don a mix CD to listen to on the trip (most of the songs are smooth and jazzy, with several songs by Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke.)  He instructs Don to look out for a typewriter, family photos, or things that are pink.  Don’s first ex-girlfriend is a closet organizer named Laura Daniels-Miller (Sharon Stone.)  When he arrives at her house with a bouquet of flowers, her teenage daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena) greets him at the door.  Laura isn’t home at that moment, but he waits for her in the living room.  Lolita starts to live up to her ironic name by tempting him in a not-so-subtle way (she casually strolls into the living room fully naked while talking on the phone, prompting the MPAA’s warning of “graphic nudity.”)  When Laura comes home, she is happy to see him.  She invites him to have dinner with her and Lolita, and later that night, they have a last one-night stand (she is a widow, because her husband, Larry, was a racecar driver who died in an accident.)  While his visit with Laura is the longest one, it produces the least amount of clues.  His second ex-girlfriend, Dora Anderson (Frances Conroy), is a former hippie chick who is now married to Ron (Christopher McDonald), and they sell real estate together.  She too is happy to see Don, though not on the same level as Laura.  She has the same forlorn expression on her face as Don, indicating that her boring job and husband don’t make her happy.  Dora’s business cards are pink, but that was actually Ron’s idea.  His third ex-girlfriend, Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), is an “animal communicator” with a busy schedule.  She manages to find a few spare minutes to visit with him, though she really doesn’t want to revisit the past.  Don doesn’t find any clues (she has a 16-year-old daughter named Liana, who is never shown), though he does find it weird that one of her dogs is named Winston.  Her assistant (Chloë Sevigny) really doesn’t like him for some reason, and even gives Don back the flowers meant for Carmen.  Before going to see his last ex-girlfriend, he stops at a flower shop, run by a woman named Sun Green (Pell James), and places the bouquet on the grave of Michelle.  Finally, he visits his fourth and last ex-girlfriend, Penny (Tilda Swinton) who lives on a farm out in the middle of nowhere (he has a hard time finding it.)  She is the most hostile towards Don, though her place produces the most clues (the pink gas tank of her motorcycle and a pink typewriter abandoned on the lawn.)  He spends the least amount of time with Penny though, because her boyfriend Will (Larry Fessenden) and his friend Dan (Chris Bauer) punch him out and leave him abandoned in his car in the middle of a field.  Once Don gets back home, he thinks that he might have found his son (Mark Webber) in a local diner he frequents, but it turns out to be a dead end.  At the very least, the search for his son has given him some hope in his life, and maybe some meaning as well, other than having an endless array of flings.

Murray has been playing the same characters over and over recently (actually, I haven’t seen last year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou yet, but I’ve been told that he plays a similar character), but this is his best performance since 1993’s Groundhog Day, the first of his depressed characters.  I know that everyone (when I say everyone, I mean other critics) loved him in 2003’s Oscar-nominated Lost in Translation, but I hated that movie.  It was boring, and the brief good parts at the beginning were weighed down by the depressing end.  He is not his jocular self in this movie, yet he manages to be entertaining.  I don’t know if I would classify this movie as a comedy or a drama, but the expressions on his face indicate that he can do drama (I know that he has done drama before, but meant “entertaining drama.”)

While Murray gets the most screen time, other cast members manage to shine in their brief parts.  Wright is very funny as Winston, and I found him more enjoyable here than in his Emmy-winning role in 2003’s HBO miniseries “Angels in America.”  Stone hasn’t had a meaty role in years, so though she is the ex-girlfriend who receives the most screen time, her time is short.  Conroy plays her character almost in the same way that she does on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” which is gloomy.  Lange is the ex that seems to be the happiest with her life.  Swinton’s appearance is so brief that you might miss it if you blinked twice.  The funny thing is that she is unrecognizable in her brunette wig, which makes her semi-cameo all that much more hard to spot.  Other critics have cited Dziena as someone to look out for as Lolita.  Honestly, I bet they were mostly male critics who were excited to see her extended nude scene (I definitely appreciate seeing a naked woman myself, but her nudity doesn’t mean that she can act.)

The only reason why I’m not giving this movie a higher rating is that the ending left me cold.  I don’t want to give it away, but it felt like we almost spent an hour and 45 minutes for nothing.  I realize that filmmakers like Jarmusch don’t like to wrap things up in a neat little package, but if you aren’t going to have a payoff, consisting of a happy or a sad ending, you’ve lost me, and I’m pretty sure that most of the general movie-going audience would agree with me.

Another word I have heard from other critics to describe Broken Flowers is that it is Jarmusch’s most “accessible” movie so far, and a few of them are hoping that he hasn’t sold out.  If “assessable” means the movie “makes sense” and is “entertaining,” then I hope that he has “sold out.”  If you want to make an arty film, that’s fine…but if you expect anyone to like it, then you have to realize that the majority of people who watch movies are going to differ in your opinion of what is art.  This movie managed to be smart and entertaining, and I hope that Jarmusch makes more of them.

Get the soundtrack featuring three songs by Mulatu Astatke, two songs by The Greenhornes, Marvin Gaye, The Allman Brothers Band, and more:

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