Funny face

Bill Murray’s latest rendezvous with deadpan humor

Aug 17, 2005 at 12:00 am

Bill Murray has officially entered his blue period. Starting with Wes Anderson’s brilliant Rushmore and peaking with Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Transition, the former Saturday Night Live actor has traded his caustic sarcasm and goofy irreverence for somber minimalism. Passive silence, blank stares and subtle expressions of amused weariness have become Murray’s new stock-in-trade. Remarkably, he remains as entertaining as ever, communicating more with the shift of an eyebrow than most actors can with their whole bodies.

Jim Jarmusch’s melancholy road movie Broken Flowers is a deadpan love letter to Murray, creating a wistful and mildly comic portrait of a man whose reluctance to grow has left him lonely.

Murray plays Don Johnston (insert obvious joke here), a retired, wealthy computer entrepreneur who’s become a highbrow couch potato. A one-time lothario, he now winces at comparisons to Don Juan, yet compulsively watches films about the Spanish seducer. When his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out on him with the declaration, “I’m like your mistress, except you’re not even married,” Don, ever a victim of inertia, does nothing to stop her. When he receives an anonymous pink letter from a past lover warning him not to be surprised if a 19-year-old shows up claiming to be his son, he barely reacts. Instead, he shares it with his neighbor, Winston (the charming Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, who enthusiastically embraces the letter like a good whodunit. Winston urges Don to compile a list of likely suspects (i.e. old flames) then assembles a cross-country itinerary to find the culprit. Reluctantly, Don sets out to reconnect with his old girlfriends and solve the mystery.

What follows is a journey through his past. In four succinct vignettes, Don travels the country and reconnects with old paramours, each less happy to see him than the one before.

His exes are, as you might expect, all very different. Laura (Sharon Stone) is a NASCAR widow and organizes closets for a living. Struggling to rein in her flirtatious teenage daughter, Lolita (who’s as brazenly sexual as her name implies), she welcomes Don with an easy warmth. Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) plays Dora, an ex-hippie turned suburban real estate agent. Along with her cheerfully shallow husband (the always terrific Christopher McDonald) she lives in a sterile subdivision, peddling colorless prefab mansions. Third on Don’s list is animal “communicator” Carmen (Jessica Lange). Once an ambitious lawyer, now a pretentious pet therapist, she curtly rebuffs Don’s invitation to dinner (“I don’t ... eat”) while her hostile assistant and lover (Chloë Sevigny) looks on. Finally there’s white trash Penny (Tilda Swinton), who reacts to Don’s appearance with anger and violence.

Though their characters are little more than thumbnail sketches, all four actresses are in top form. Their brief interludes with Don are effectively weighted with history and unspoken emotions.

Oddly, Don never outright asks any of the women if she sent the letter, instead looking for clues. Even in the center of his own mystery he takes the path of least resistance and avoids confrontation. Though his quest offers no definitive answers, recognition of his past mistakes begins to take hold and small epiphanies begin to blossom.

If it all sounds overly nihilistic or maudlin, keep in mind this is a Jim Jarmusch film. Methodically paced but never dull, the director understands how to milk silence for both dramatic and comic weight. His quirky sense of melancholy and low-key satire keep the film amusing, engaging and surprisingly affecting.

Murray provides a superb center to Don’s aloofness, offering up a poignant deadpan performance. He delivers his lines with droll understatement and earns easy laughs with his impassiveness. When Don visits the grave of a long-dead lover, Murray overcomes a potentially mawkish scene with truly genuine emotion.

Though the film’s plot may disappoint some with its vague answers and open-ended conclusion, Broken Flowers is, at its core, a film filled with wry observations and a fragile wisdom. When asked to offer up words of advice to the younger generation, Don offers up a banal yet easily overlooked truth: “The past is gone, the future’s not here yet. All there is is now.” Hackneyed as it may sound, in Murray’s hands it seems like revelation.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].