Bill Murray is the closest thing to a modern Charlie Chaplin, not in being a filmmaker, but in creating an onscreen persona. His ‘dour schlemiel’ is every bit as iconic as Chaplin’s tramp. He has played the same basic character in films from Groundhog Day to Lost In Translation to his incarnation in Jim Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers. This 2005 film is one of those works of art that should be filed under ‘nice attempt’, but is ultimately a failure. And it fails for the simplest of reasons that all bad films fail: a bad screenplay, which was written by Jarmusch himself.
Murray plays a former Lothario named Don Johnston, who made a fortune in personal computers, watches The Adventures Of Don Juan on tv (for all call him a Don Juan), and whose girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) is leaving him. His Ethiopian friend and neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), is a mystery writer and amateur detective. On the day Sherry leaves Don gets an unsigned letter in a pink envelope, typed in red ink, from a former girlfriend saying that twenty years ago he fathered her son, and he may be searching for him. Don is is pushed by Winston to search for the writer of the letter. The first of his ex-girlfriends he visits is Laura (Sharon Stone). She’s a NASCAR widow, whose daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena), is a gorgeous nymphet who nakedly tries to seduce Don (wow, what a shock!). She does not succeed, but Laura does (ah, film!- only in such a medium could a guy like Murray, and a cipher of a character like Don, have a prayer of bedding Sharon Stone- or her onscreen lookalike). Don, in Murrayvian fashion, never tells her his real reason for the trip, then later fantasizes about….of course, Lolita- yes, it’s really that heavyhanded in its attempts at symbolism.
His second ex-lover is Dora (Frances Conroy), who, with her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald), are realtors of pre-fab homes. Again Murray equivocates and does not reveal the reason for his trip to see her. The nest woman on his list is New Age pet psychic Carmen (Jessica Lange), whose lesbian assistant (Chloë Sevigny) resents Don’s intrusion. Carmen’s so fruity that Don does not even attempt to really tell her why he stopped by. His fourth ex-lover is Penny (Tilda Swinton), a biker chick whose boyfriend punches Don out when she goes psycho just a minute after meeting him. A fifth lover is now dead, and he returns to his posh home, and Winston, unsatisfied.
Then, one day, he sees a young man he saw at the airport coming home, and believes it might be the son he was warned might look for him. Don tries to engage the kid, buys him a sandwich outside a delicatessen, and when he tries to ask the kid questions as to what sort of a quest he’s on the kid runs off down the street. The film then abruptly ends with Don in the middle of a forked road- rather awkward symbolism, and the sign of a bad screenplay that really did not know how to bring things to an end- even if open ended. The end that exists is not open-ended, just an abruption that sputters. And because the viewer has not been made to care one iota for any of the characters, there is no reason to care if Don ever will find his son, or if he’s been hoaxed. Murray’s performance is phone it in ‘dour schlemiel’ for a paycheck, and it’s quite a stretch to believe he was ever a Lothario. Yes, he’s rich now, but he’s also a dullard in terms of intellect and personality. Since the film states he only got rich during the dot-com bubble, we’re to believe that before his success he had all these babes because of his great personality?
Yet, if Murray is growing tiresome with his centimeter’s length acting range, Jarmusch’s schtick, as serious indie filmmaker who loves to ape student film ideas, is even more boring. A few years ago he seemed to have made a stunning breakthrough, with Ghost Dog, which seemed to herald his arrival into the pantheon of great American filmmakers, but since then has regressed, and regressed severely, to the point of consciously aping the very worst aspects of self-consciously dull European artsy cinema- even dedicating this film to French filmmaker Jean Eustache (The Mother And The Whore). This is supposedly a comedy, but the only attempts at humor come with Don’s surname Johnston constantly being misconstrued as Johnson, as in Don Johnson- the old Miami Vice tv star, and him having to correct them with the addition of a t. The film suffers from a lack of real creativity of the sort that fascinated Andy Warhol and his Factory hangers-on. Watching dull people in dull lives do little or nothing is simply not profound. Real art seizes upon those moments of ordinariness, and by either showing a break from them, or focusing on some aspect of that ordinariness, subverts it. This film merely indulges banality and tries to be cutesy, and the fact that its screenplay was reputedly written in less than three weeks shows.
Jarmusch is still a daring director, but he seems to be in mid-life crisis mode, not knowing what he will do next, or what he should do. Even the DVD extras are schizophrenic, with a trailer, and a handful of unnarrated deleted scenes and outtakes that just play on with no rhyme nor reason, recapitulating the film’s major flaw of being merely a series of barely connected sketches. In them, however, we do see from the clapboard, that the film was originally to be called Dead Flowers, but Jarmusch must have felt that the word ‘dead’ in the title would be too reflective of the mood of the film, so he changed it to this title, which I can only guess he felt might have better mojo, like the D.W. Griffith silent film classic with a similar name- Broken Blossoms. Yet, unfortunately, mo rarely works for a second jo, and this film is that proof!