Bill Murray enters a new phase of his minimalist period by teaming with Jim Jarmusch — the indie master of less is more — to play the man who wasn’t there. At first glance, Murray’s Don Johnston — he made his fortune in computers — resembles nothing but a hollow shell. Sherry (Julie Delpy), the latest in a long line of attractive women to walk out on him, is rigorously cataloging the emotions he lacks. But Don rarely listens or musters the politeness to ask her to stay. Staring at the tube, watching Douglas Fairbanks get reamed out by his lovers in 1934’s The Private Life of Don Juan, Don appears to shrink.
Admittedly, I had that sinking feeling. Had those great, implosive Murray performances in Rushmore and Lost in Translation filled the defiant comic rebel of Meatballs, Tootsie, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day? Was Wild Bill no more?
Not to worry. Broken Flowers may be too low-key for laugh junkies, but Jarmusch fills his sharply observed comedy with wonderful mischief. The mix of humor and heartbreak brings out the best in Murray, who is essentially playing a man caught in the act of rediscovering himself.
The impetus for rousing Don is an unsigned letter, typed on pink paper, in which a former lover announces that she had given birth to Don’s son nineteen years before. The news doesn’t seem to faze Don, but is curious friend Winston (the superb Jeffrey Wright) goads him into providing the names of the women he knew during that time period. It’s Winston who Google’s the whereabouts of the four suspects — a fifth possibility is deceased — and sends Don off on a road trip through his mouth. The rigidity of that lock-step structure is quickly dispelled by the light touch of Jarmusch’s direction and the stunning performances by Murray and four gifted actresses.
Sharon Stone is up first as Laura, a race-car driver’s widow raising teen daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), whose name says it all. The warmth of Stone’s portrayal — Don wakes up in her bed, her face mashed up against his — suggests a former intimacy Don seems incapable of now.
He next visits prim Dora (Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under).he and her husband (Christopher McDonald) sell real estate and live in childless sterility. At dinner, rage flickers behind the husband’s grins he shows Don a framed photo of Dora in her “hippie chick” youth — a photo he knows that Don himself took. Conroy is extraordinary; emotions seem to bleed beneath her skin. And her shared looks with Murray suggest a humor and a depth that she and her husband do not possess.
The humor escalates when Don visits Carmen (Jessica Lange, creating full life in miniature), a lawyer turned animal communicator — she asks a cat to leave the room, which it promptly does. Carmen bristles when Don asks about kids, letting him see the sparks between her and her sexy assistant (Chloe Sevigny).
The quickest visit is with Penny (the great Tilda Swinton), a biker who spits fire at the sight of Don and has a friend rough him up. Don leaves as confused as before.
Jarmusch doesn’t tie up loose ends, even when Don visits the grave of the fifth woman and later encounters a boy (Mark Webber) who’s around the right age to be his son. What the movie does accomplish —hrough Murray’s deadpan tour de force — is to set Don’s life in motion again in the chaotic, visceral present. Jarmusch expects us to solve the puzzle by staying alert to the accumulation of details, by looking deep into Murray’s eyes as the camera makes whooshing circles around him in the devastating final scene. Broken Flowers is a rare film that richly rewards the attention it demands.