November 17, 2005 -- “Broken Flowers” is the latest film from indie heartthrob Jim Jarmusch (“Coffee and Cigarettes”), the American who makes movies like a European. His latest effort is aggressively unsatisfying. It seems to begin and end exactly nowhere. It is the ultimate anti-road film. It is also anti-entertaining.
Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) stars as Don Johnston, a software millionaire who has just seen the last in a very long line of girlfriends walk out on him. A career bachelor, this must have happened before, but Johnston has a mid-life crisis this time. It is brought on by a mysterious letter he receives in the mail. The letter says that he has a 19-year-old son he knows nothing about. His son, the letter says, is interested in finding him and may come to visit him. There is no signature on the letter and no return address. Johnston's next door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright of “The Manchurian Candidate”) a wannabe mystery writer, is intrigued by the letter and wants to unravel the mystery. He decides that Johnston should visit old girlfriends he knew at the time during which the boy might have been conceived. Maybe he can find a clue about who the mother is. Winston suggests that Johnston try to find the typewriter which typed the message.
The whole idea is just plain nuts. Johnston could stay around the house and wait for the boy to show up. He could hire a private detective to find the author of the letter. He could ignore the whole thing as a probable hoax. Instead, he embarks on the cross-country journey to find a woman who obviously doesn't want to be found. He encounters various responses from welcome to hostility during his journey.
The road movie is a powerful motif in American cinema. Often road trips reveal truths about the traveler and sometimes lead to transformations. America is a big country. There has long been the idea that if things don't work out for you in one place, you can get in your car and drive somewhere and start over. In a sense, that is what Johnston tries to do in this story. He tries to rewrite the story of his life with a road trip. In the end, he finds that nothing has changed. He is still the same guy. He is still alone. He still has no family. He is right back where he started. Nothing is revealed (to quote Bob Dylan). So “Dead Man” was Jarmusch's anti-western, “Broken Flowers” is Jarmusch's anti-road film. The end of the road is the same as the beginning of the road.
If this all sounds pointless and frustrating, it probably is. If it sounds fascinating, it probably is. It depends what you are looking for in a film. The film is presented in terms of a mystery, but that is not what it is about at all. It is about karma. It is about reaping what you sow. Johnston cannot suddenly become the father and family man he never has been. Life doesn't work that way. He was always a loner and always will be a loner. That's the life he chose. He can't change his life now, no matter how far he drives.
Murray continues the minimalist acting which served him so well in “Lost in Translation.” Jeffrey Wright creates a very interesting character in Winston. I think the film would have been more interesting if Winston had made the trip instead of Johnston. The lighting and cinematography in the film is very dark and muddy. It looks like crap. It also has a very cheap, second-rate look about it, particularly in the early scenes. The full frontal nudity in the film is a bit shocking, and seems quite out of place. It is just sort of slapped into the movie like ketchup on a hot dog (no pun intended). It does make for one of the funnier scenes in the movie, though when Johnston says, “That was an interesting outfit you had on earlier.” This film rates a C.
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