Click here to listen to Jim Jarmusch on COFFEE AND CIGARETTES.
There are those of us who, with wild abandon and without apology, worship at the altar of Jarmusch. There is in his off-kilter rhythms and deliberately deadpan aesthetic a peculiar, and peculiarly resonant, insight into how it is that human beings conduct their lives. His films, including his latest, BROKEN FLOWERS, are peopled with characters, some bona fide misfits, some merely a scooch out of synch, whose skewed choices are the fodder for Jarmush’s insights into the nihilistic despair and the improbably insistent hope that color reality.
The character in question is Don Johnston (Bill Murray), that’s Johnston with a “T” as he is forced to point at throughout the film as people, usually comely young things, look askance at the genteel wreck before them who bears no resemblance to someone who once starred on “Miami Vice.” In fact, that’s not who Jarmusch wants to conjure with that particular moniker, though he’s not loathe to making it a running joke. No, the persona he’s evoking is Don Juan, but not the virile womanizer, rather the older, mellower version, as incarnated in the film Don is watching when we meet him, as in the aging Douglas Fairbanks, Sr in his last hurrah as a matinee idol, poking fun at himself and the Don Juan legend. Both Dons have spent their lives in pursuit of the fairer sex and in both cases, this has come back to haunt them. In Johnston’s, it’s in the form of a letter typed in red ink on pink stationery and delivered in a pink envelope to Don just as his current girlfriend (Julie Delpy), similarly decked out in pink, is leaving him. In fact, it all but drops from the mail slot onto her pink shoes, giving her yet another reason to walk out on him when she assumes it’s from another of his paramours.
She’s right, but not in the way she thinks. It’s from a flame, but an old one, and instead of sweet nothings, it contains a bombshell about a little something Don left her to raise by herself almost twenty years ago. Don professes to be uninterested in the anonymous note with no return address and a postmark too faint to read, but Winston (an ebullient Jeffrey Wright), his next-door neighbor with three jobs, five kids, and what Don thinks is the perfect woman, finds it irresistible. As Don spends his time face-down on his sofa, or sitting in the dark listening to mournful music, Winston has researched Don’s romantic history and organized an itinerary, complete with airline reservations, maps, and rental cars, and he won’t take apathy for an answer when Don would rather not confront his past, or rather pasts.
His journey is full of signs and portents as each of the four old girlfriends he visits, in the persons of Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, offer surprises along with their radically different welcomes ranging from earth mother to physical violence, with no reunion anything less than achingly awkward. One has a typewriter, pink no less, another may or may not have a son, another has a nymphet daughter named Lolita, Lo for short, and one had a beloved dog named Winston. And don’t discount that Don lives on Circle Drive.
The central mystery is, of course, Don’s inner life, the one that he is perfectly happy to tuck away where it won’t bother anyone, least of all him. And the problem there is that these things have a way of making themselves a nuisance if they’re ignored. There is a delicious metaphor as Don, who has made his fortune with computers, is called from his sterile, expensively decorated home over to Winston’s rollicking chaos in order to crack the access to a web site about how to write or solve a mystery that Winston, an inveterately curious soul, is trying to access. It’s emblematic of Jarmusch’s style. Each moment carefully orchestrated in its art and sound design to say as much, if not more, than any dialogue involved.
And in Murray he has found his quintessential actor. When Winston asks Don to compile a list of the women he knew 20 years ago, there is the merest, almost imperceptible change in Murray’s face, and yet the clear gobsmack of realizing how impossible it is, time- and memory-wise, not to mention the memories it might dredge up. It is an exquisite moment and exactly what is best about Jarmush, that is to say, what >isn’t< said, but what is communicated as clearly as a robust yodel echoing through the Alps. Similarly when, sitting through a perfectly civil, perfectly dreadful, dinner with one of his old girlfriends and her relentlessly upbeat husband, it’s the way he copes with a mouthful of carrots that conveys the need to hasten the meal that no one is enjoying while appearing nonchalant. There is in Murray that peculiar gift of demanding both our empathy for his plight in any given situation, and the film is nothing but a series of vignettes exploring just that, and laughter at the absurdity of it all at the same time and in equal measure.
BROKEN FLOWERS is that dichotomy of emotions on a larger scale. The characters may be dead serious, but they are, unwittingly, caught up in a story that makes them the punch-line of a cosmic joke. Jarmusch may not give us, or his characters, a way out of that, but he does let us, if not them, luxuriate in the farce of it all.
Click here for the DVD review of BROKEN FLOWERS.