Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a wealthy, middle-aged man living in the suburbs with a long stream of failed relationships behind him. On the day his latest lover Sherry (Julie Delpy) walks out on him, Don receives an anonymous letter from someone claiming to be an ex-girlfriend, who nearly 20 years ago gave birth to a son he never knew he had. Encouraged by his detective story-loving neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don hits the road to find out which of his former lovers could have written the letter.
As many critics have found, it’s very easy to compare Broken Flowers to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation – a world-weary Bill Murray embarks of a journey of self-discovery while finding it hard to keep his eye off the younger ladies. Really though, the only films that this one is similar to are Jim Jarmusch’s other movies – despite Murray’s presence and a recognisable supporting cast, Broken Flowers is unlikely to win over non-converts to the director’s world; fans however will find much to enjoy in this haunting, darkly funny tale.
The main characters in Jarmusch’s films have always taken their time over life, but Don Johnston is the first to have completely ground to a halt. This is a man for whom everything, on the face of it, seems to be going pretty well – big house and healthy bank balance thanks to a successful career in computers, a beautiful younger girlfriend in a long line of beautiful younger girlfriends, and a warm, friendly neighbour who looks up to Don. But any real pleasure has long since left Don’s life – he can barely muster the energy to go to bed at night, preferring to fall asleep in front of his huge TV, let alone talk Sherry out of leaving. Initially, he is hugely reluctant to step back into his past and seek out the potential mother of this mystery son – which he narrows down to four suspects. However, with nothing else to do all week and Winston refusing to let Don drop the issue, his mission begins.
Bill Murray’s performance is so intentionally somnambulistic that the film constantly threatens to grind to a halt. Jarmusch paces his film as he always has done – ie. damn slow, holding scenes long after the point that other directors would have cut away – and as much time is spent on the details of Don’s journey across the US than his actual destinations. Luckily, the ghosts from his womanising past are fully realised as funny, colourful characters in a series of sparkling cameos. First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), a single mother who acts only slightly more mature than her precocious teenage daughter Lolita, while Dora (Frances Conroy) is a aloof suburbanite who runs a real estate business with her dull husband and seems to be but a shadow of her younger flower-child self. Meanwhile, Carmen (Jessica Lange) is a hippie doctor specialising in pet therapy, and Penny (Tilda Swinton) an angry biker chick living in the backwoods.
Put this story in another director’s hands – Cameron Crowe for instance –and you’d have an emotional, life-affirming experience, as Don finally comes to terms with the present by confronting the past. Not here however. Jarmusch provides very few clues as to how Don is really feeling as he moves from one bizarre encounter to the next, and Murray remains inscrutable throughout, whether he’s being welcomed with open arms (Laura), or met with outright hostility (Penny). Nevertheless, the theme of passing time remains central to the film – if these women were once similar ‘types’, 20 years later they have become four completely different people, unified only by the fact that none of them really care about Don’s current life. Those looking for tidy resolutions – or indeed any sort of resolution – have come to wrong place; in fact, the last 15 minutes throw up yet more questions. But if Broken Flowers isn’t quite Jarmusch’s best work, it is simultaneously both one of his funniest and saddest, Bill Murray proving the perfect cipher for director’s wry, deadpan writing.