Bill Murray gives a lesson in minimalist acting in “Broken Flowers,” a droll account of an aging bachelor’s hesitant hunt for a son he may have fathered years before. Working in his typically idiosyncratic and episodic vein, Jim Jarmusch has nonetheless pitched the film slightly more toward mainstream tastes than usual for him, using excellent thesps in the service of accessible material. Based on the cast and a likely share of good reviews, Focus should be able to push this to agreeable B.O. with auds looking for moderately offbeat fare.
To be sure, Jarmusch goes his own way with the subject, avoiding the many opportunities it provides to milk emotion and sentiment out of a loaded premise. Rather, the writer-director extracts the humor to be found in the levels of ambivalence within Murray’s gray Don Juan and his former paramours when they are reacquainted after so much time.
Left in the opening scene by his latest love, Sherry (Julie Delpy), Don Johnston (Murray) receives an unsigned letter on pink paper informing him that he has a nearly 19-year-old son who may be trying to track him down. Not visibly moved by the revelation, he shares the news with his next-door-neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an Ethiopian native with five kids who fancies himself a sleuth and motivates his reluctant friend to figure out who among his old flames might have written the note.
Given four names (a fifth candidate has died), Winston tracks down addresses and books an itinerary for Don’s exploratory road trip, giving him a homemade music CD and advising him to present pink flowers to each of the ladies. To all of this, Don exhibits no enthusiasm, but neither does he firmly resist, finally getting on a plane to an unspecified location to begin his visitations.
A seeming empty vessel emotionally, Don appears to exist in a virtual void. Not obliged to work after having made a bundle on computers (although he doesn’t own one), Don is apparently content to be alone, listening to classical music or watching TV at home. He isn’t seen reading, and other people tend to mildly irritate him, which Murray deftly expresses with a wide assortment of subtle facial grimaces and eye rolling.
In fact, he may not have much to offer, in the way of conversation, ideas or heart, but backgrounding, psychology or hints of vulnerability are resolutely ignored by Jarmusch, who is only interested in the here-and-now of his characters.
After a half-hour of preliminaries, first candidate turns up in the person of Laura (Sharon Stone), a trampy widow whose race car driver husband recently went up in flames on the track. Great fun is extracted from Don’s meeting with her teenage daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena), whose name says everything there is to know about her.
Looking man-starved, Laura invites Don to dinner and then to bed; it’s obvious she would say something about it if she’d had a son by Don.
A seeming short drive away is Dora (Frances Conroy), who lives in the sort of lavish but soulless pre-fab house she and her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald) market as real estate agents. Tentative, prim and inwardly forlorn, Dora also invites Don for dinner, but when the guest gets around to asking if she has any kids, he hits a sore spot, after which there’s nothing to talk about.
As the journey persists, there is no suggestion that the encounters are stirring any meaningful feelings in the impassive Don. The deadpan act is so consistent that one sometimes hopes the ice might be cracked by recollections of good times past of a few shared laughs or experiences. But he is nonetheless driven enough to continue his quest, however awkward it may be at times and however initially unchanged Don may be by the prospect of unknown fatherhood.
Most comically maximized interlude involves Don’s visit with Carmen (Jessica Lange), whose profession as an “animal communicator” for a precious, upscale clientele with pet problems provides quite a few laughs and which gives Murray choice opportunities for comic skepticism.
But despite her questionable profession, Carmen also proves to be the most formidable and substantial of Don’s former lovers, an educated and focused woman not terribly interested in looking back or opening her life for Don’s inspection.
Last up is Penny (an all-but-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton in long dark hair), a biker chick living at a remote farmhouse who angrily tells Don to take a hike. Given the build-up to this final confrontation, episode is over much too fast and disappoints by giving Swinton so little to do.
But there is still a bit more to come, which ambiguously opens up other possibilities regarding the mystery in Don’s life and his desire to solve it. Pic may end on a too inconclusive of a note for general audiences, but Jarmusch pulls back the emotional curtain just enough to suggest that Don’s search may yet bear fruit.
Murray’s tapped-down work is designed to hide inner feelings, if there are any, from sight, but also to fully present this man as he exists in relation to the world. If he truly wants to find what he’s ostensibly looking for, he will have to come out of himself, something he finally seems to realize toward the end.
Limited to 10 minutes or so of screentime at most, the vet actresses must all register quickly, which they do with vitality; Stone has vampy fun in her role, while Lange, in particular, creates a well-rounded character of integrity and a strong sense of self-worth. Dziena squeezes all she can out of her juicy role as a teen tease, and Wright, in a less flamboyant role than he often plays, provides the crucial energy and dynamic in the early scenes with the unchatty Murray.
Shooting mostly in leafy East Coast suburbia and on countryside locations, Jarmusch and lenser Frederick Elmes have forged a clean, elegant look. Pacing is precise, and the journey is propelled by appealing jazz-leaning tracks from Winston’s helpful CD.