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Rake’s progress
Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray bloom
Related Links

Broken Flowers' official Web site

Jim Jarmusch's official Web site

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Although he seems a happy family man in real life, Bill Murray on screen has been having trouble connecting with his outer child. As the wayward oceanographer in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou he was presented with the consequences of a youthful fling in the form of Owen Wilson. In Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers he has to work harder, tracking down a possible son through a tour of girlfriends from two decades before. Jarmusch, on the other hand, toils less than did Anderson in his phantasmagoric idyll. Minimalist as always, he tags along after his hangdog hero, making the quest comic, eloquent, and universal.

Sometimes Jarmusch’s minimalism lapses into a flair for the obvious — starting with his character’s name. Don Johnston (there will be jokes about the star of Miami Vice) bears more than a passing resemblance to Don Juan. As he sits glumly in his darkened living room, The Private Life of Don Juan airs unheeded on his TV set. His girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) refers to him as a Don Juan as she grabs her suitcase and leaves. And so on. But the old rake’s comeuppance waits on his doorstep: an unsigned letter from, we presume, an old flame informing him that he has a 19-year-old son and that the boy is searching for his father.

Murray’s impervious face doesn’t reveal much in the way of a response; it’s a Rorschach for the viewer. He does, however, stir from his inertia long enough to visit his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an ebullient, annoyingly content father of five who likes to write detective stories. Winston notes the letter’s few details (pink envelope, typewritten) and tells Don that it’s a sign and that he must pursue it. What’s more, after prevailing on Don for a list of names, he provides him with an itinerary with suspicious alacrity. Don hesitates — his fatal flaw is not so much lust as apathy and melancholia — but Winston merely tells him to present each woman with a bouquet of pink flowers before trying to extract any information.

Jarmusch’s style of travel hasn’t changed much since his 1983 breakthrough road movie, Stranger Than Paradise: a vaguely sad face staring at a blank landscape through a car window. (Don takes a few planes as well.) In this case, though, the first stop is promising. Dropping in on Laura (Sharon Stone), he’s welcomed by her scantily clad teenage daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Need I say more? Laura is even more effusive in her greetings, cooking Don dinner and dragging him into bed. No hard feelings, we gather, but no information either.

From this encouraging beginning, the leads grow progressively colder. Dora (Frances Conroy) has as her real-estate partner a fatuous husband who laughs at the "hippie" picture Don took long ago. Carmen (Jessica Lange), an aloof "animal communicator" for spoiled people with spoiled pets, seems to be doing some animal communicating with her receptionist (Chloë Sevigny), who jealously returns the pink flowers as he leaves. And biker Penny (Tilda Swinton) lets her hairy boyfriend’s fists do the talking.

What does Don find? A few clues, such as a pink typewriter and a cat named Winston, and several opportunities for Jarmusch to parody the garishness of America. But unlike the thirtysomething John Cusack, who follows a similar path in High Fidelity, Don doesn’t reconcile himself with the past, he kisses it goodbye. A scene in a graveyard marks his and the film’s emotional climax, and another with a young stranger sums up the film’s refusal to offer resolution. Hell for this Don Juan is not punishment for his excesses but a reminder that in the end they come to nothing.

Issue Date: August 5 - 12, 2005
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