Murray has apparently decided to define this stage of his career as The Age of Melancholy, in which his characters -- whether in Rushmore, Lost in Translation or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou -- clearly have missed something on their way to adulthood. These previous works, though, made with Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, relied to varying degrees on Murray's infamous mugging charm. It was up to him to decide on the charm-to-angst ratio, and I'd argue that while his comedic timing in Rushmore was just as precise as his dramatic moments in Lost in Translation, his work in The Life Aquatic feels like a misstep. Regardless, one can't help but feel we've seen everything in Murray's middle-age arsenal. What can Jarmusch get out of him we haven't already seen -- or maybe more importantly, that we want to see?
Even the first scene of Broken Flowers, with Murray staring blankly at the TV from his huge, leather sofa in his suburban cocoon, feels like a goof on the poster for Lost in Translation. The object of his dazed gaze is the movie Don Juan, which touches off not one but two recurring riffs on his name: Don Johnston, which evokes both the legendary lothario of literature and of Michael Mann's Miami Vice noir fantasies.
We're catching Don in yet another transitional period as his latest youngish girlfriend (Julie Delpy) is walking out the door and out of his life, stepping over the mail that includes a typewritten letter with a pink ribbon from an anonymous former lover warning him of a son he never knew he had. The kid's approaching 20, she writes, and has set off presumably to find his father. Lock the doors!
Don shares the information with his next-door neighbor and best friend, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a Jamaican who is everything Don is not. Winston, ever the amateur sleuth, sees the letter as another mystery to solve and ultimately convinces Don to track down the many ex-girlfriends from two decades ago and find out who the mom is. Winston's motives are purely vicarious and superficial; everyone loves a good mystery. But Don's motives, however passive-aggressive and unspoken, are more crucial: He wants to know how he got to this place in life, where his girlfriends feel like mistresses to a man who isn't even married.
The ensuing episodic structure plays to Jarmusch's strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker, for I'm struggling to find a moment in any of his movies where he's presented purely honest reflections of emotion between his male and female characters. Ever the hipster ironist schooled on the French New Wave, Jarmusch has long kept his distance from such raw deals. But as Don visits his former loves in such conventional fashion, Jarmusch's hesitance serves the story rather well.
Jarmusch resists Big Conversations in every single mini-reunion. First there's the former wild child Laura (Sharon Stone) and her aptly named daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena); then hippy-turned-real-estate-agent Dora (Frances Conroy) and her suspicious husband, Ron (Christopher McDonald); then animal communicator Carmen (Jessica Lange) and her apparently lesbian lover/assistant (Chloe Sevigny); and finally the very pissed-off Penny (Tilda Swinton) and her biker boyfriend. Don, working on instructions from Winston to "look for clues" -- a manual typewriter, the color pink -- finds potential mothers during the visit, a fact that quickly becomes secondary to the real mystery of why he's still a bachelor after all these years. Not that it's solved, but Don sees in his former lovers wisps of regret that he didn't have his shit together when they were together -- to one degree or another, they have each settled for less -- and his re-entry into their lives stirs up more emotions than they'd like.
That Jarmusch feels compelled to use now-cliched digs at suburban America is a cheap device and shows yet again how the indie filmmaker -- heck, virtually every filmmaker -- has nothing but utter contempt for the middle class. Dora's sterile existence is accentuated by the prefab neighborhood in which she lives; it might as well be a prison of sameness. Can we please move on from this tired critique?
Still, Jarmusch deftly avoids any easy resolutions, settling for a comparatively elliptical ending in which Don -- even after meeting what may be his son -- will be left to figure things out for himself. If anybody can handle that uncertainty, it's Bill Murray. It's just too bad we've already seen him do it. A lot.