Jim Jarmusch has been making movies a long time. He has never felt the need to please his audience, but rather to explore his stories the way a jazz musician explores a song – you never know where it’s going until it gets there. He pairs up here with Bill Murray for Broken Flowers, arguably Jarmusch’s most moving film to date, which is saying something considering his films don’t fail or succeed based on their emotional impact. In Murray, he has found the acting embodiment of what Jarmusch does as a director: he doesn’t give much back. The result, in this case, is a film that doesn’t give much back, but somehow packs a powerful punch in the end and does so unexpectedly.
Murray plays Don Johnston, a man who has had many women come and go in his life and the day his latest (Julie Delpy) walks out on him, he finds a letter (red ink on pink paper) written anonymously. It’s a “Dear Don” letter, probably the middle aged equivalent of the “Dear John” letter; something you dread getting. Here, the letter explains that 20 years earlier Don had fathered a son. And the son is on his way to find his dad.
At the urging of his neighbor and best friend Winston (the always brilliant and versatile Geoffrey Wright), Don sets out on a road trip of his own, down the paths of the women he bedded twenty years ago. Just as Don’s life must have brightened by their presence, the film comes alive with the appearance of these great women, played by great actresses. First up is Laura (Sharon Stone) who seems to have wasted most of her young life on a man who died and left her alone with an oversexed pre-teen daughter (named Lolita). Stone’s finely chiseled face now has a few more lines, which only makes her, as it does all of the women in this film, all the more appealing.
After sleeping with her, of course, Don continues on his journey to find Dora (Frances Conroy) married to a realtor in a generic model home. Like his visit with Laura, Don is encouraged to have dinner with Dora and her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald). It is an awkward evening to put it mildly and Don is no more closer to finding out the mother who wrote the notorious pink letter.
Because of his predicament, Don refuses to say a word to these women about why he is visiting them. He simply follows his friend Winston’s advice and says, “just checking in.” And it is in the way they respond to him that we see the forms of what his life was like with them and what it might have been if he’d stayed with them. It isn’t that he’s finding the women happy and doing great so much as he finds them in their little lives making the best of where their experiences took them.
After Dora, Don finds Carmen (a beautifully preserved Jessica Lange) who seems to be the closest of them all to living a happy life – she’s an “animal communicator” and is apparently a lesbian (her young lover and assistant Chloe Sevigny hovers jealously over their conversation). Don wants to see more of Carmen but she is obviously so far beyond needing him that she turns him down flat.
In each case, Don brings flowers to the women, sometimes they’re pink roses, other times picked wildflowers but always a gesture that elicits a response, good and bad. He is also encountering young women, all of whom seem drawn to him with magnetic force. But his mission to find the mother of his son, or else his acknowledgement of his age, prevents him from hooking up with these pretty young things. They are evidence, however, of the kinds of women the older ones once were, when Don had his way with them.
Jarmusch works with a clear palette here – pink is everywhere, the “girl color.” And blondes are everywhere – these willowy women all look alike somehow. Don has his preference, no doubt. The images of their hurt faces, beyond the blonde and aging skin, is the kind of thing Don won’t likely forget.
In trekking back through his past, it is clear that Don’s life has passed him by. It is all back there, in memories. The idea that he created a son he knows nothing about signifies all that wasted potential, the way his life might have gone. What he has left isn’t much – a nice car, a dark, depressing house, but the laughter of children, the warm, loving arms of a good woman – it’s all eluded him.Bill Murray isn’t quite as mesmerizing as he needs to be – the camera is on him throughout most of the film and because he keeps everything in and shows nothing, it is somewhat a dreary experience watching him. This is a film to watch for the women. It always comes back to them; they bring it all back home.