Directed Viewing: The Zen of Murray and “Broken Flowers”

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the series where I take a look at the filmography of any given director one movie at a time. We are rounding the corner on the work of Jim Jarmusch, that too-cool indie darling back before indie was popular, man. I kid, but if you’ve been following along you know that this has been the definition of a love/hate project. Sometimes you just pick the wrong director for your tastes, I suppose, and have to see it through.

But forget about that nonsense today, because we have a great movie to talk about! This one is actually the first Jarmusch movie I saw, catching it in an actual movie theater upon its original release. I liked it then, I’ve since seen it another time or two on DVD, and revisiting it for this piece I’m reminded just how much I still like it. So let’s get to it. This week’s movie is

Broken Flowers (2005)

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) describes himself as ‘still a bachelor’ well beyond the point when that’s cool. The movie opens with his girlfriend leaving him, not due to any huge falling out, but because of the dejected truth that he’s just never going to settle down. Which is how we meet him, getting dumped by Julie Delpy with his own sense of resigned inevitability. She was always going to leave, and writ upon Johnston’s stoic face is the sense that he’s not sure if he’s trying not to care or simply doesn’t. And any guy that would seemingly not care as Ms. Delpy walks out of his life has problems.

His one friend is his next-door neighbor Winston, played by Jeffrey Wright with a ridiculous accent, a man with three jobs, six kids, and a home life that is in every way the opposite of Don’s. He’s happy, endlessly energetic and fascinated by the world, and seems to look upon Don with something akin to pity. Which is why when Don receives an anonymous letter from an old girlfriend stating that he has a son that might be trying to contact him, Winston offers to try to help track down these old girlfriends so Don can find out who the mother of his son is.

This leads to Winston creating a wild travel itinerary for Don to follow to contact the four women who Don knew in the time frame that would coincide with the age of the mystery son as stated in the letter. Winston, an amateur detective, pieces together mapquest routes and rental cars and plane tickets on Don’s dime to create a path of sleuthing, telling him to look for clues about who sent the letter–a typewriter that it had been written on, or pink stationary that matched the paper. Don, drifting through his big empty house like he’s haunting it, objects to the very idea but finds himself going on this trip anyway, accompanied by a wildly inappropriate mix tape Winston even burned for him to listen to on the way.

This kicks off the bulk of the movie, which involves Don dropping in on each of these women unannounced, disrupting lives and getting a variety of receptions along the way. In the interests of not making this take forever, I’ll give you the straight bulleted list version.

  • There’s the race car driver widow played by Sharon Stone with a teenaged daughter named Lolita who seems starved for male influence but confused whether she wants a father or a boyfriend. (when Don asks her if she has any brothers or sisters she coquettishly asks “Why, do you think I need some?”)
  • A real estate agent played by Francis Conroy, locked in a convenient business-focused marriage with her real estate husband (everyone’s favorite film-douche Christopher McDonald) who talks about how she used to be a flower child (presumably when Don knew her) but now she seems desperately prim and proper.
  • An animal communicator (“pet psychic” is what Don calls it) played by Jessica Lange who seems decidedly less than happy to see Don when he shows up. She seems the most over him, focused intently on the pets she works with and the assistant (played by Chloe Sevigny) that she seems to be in an illicit relationship with.
  • A scary, haunted looking Tilda Swinton who lives in a run down house in the middle of nowhere, seemingly fallen the furthest into white trash biker culture, and who reacts to Don with genuine anger and violence. This one barely even gets anywhere before she turns him away and Don ends up with a black eye for his troubles.

And for what’s basically a series of vignettes, it really works. I was rough on Coffee and Cigarettes, but seen through the lens of Broken Flowers it’s really the narrative thrust that was missing, and is missing from all the Jarmusch movies I don’t like. I like it when his movies have stories, and when they don’t I find them nearly insufferable. I don’t think that’s a big request, is it? I mean, really? A little? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s not especially relevant outside of the larger conversation about how torn this whole project has made me.

It’s hard to talk about Broken Flowers without talking about Bill Murray. Certainly this is a Jarmusch movie through and through, but I can’t imagine it working or even existing without the central presence of Bill Murray. He steps straight from his dual indie breakout roles in Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic as the same character he almost always plays, but defined and refined through the director he’s working with. Murray is the mirror through which directors project their own dissatisfaction and apathy onto the screen.

But here he’s nothing short of amazing. It takes a lot of balls to hang the movie on someone so assuredly doing nothing, but damn if Jarmusch and Murray don’t pull it of. Don is a man who kills long stretches of time doing nothing more than sitting and existing, marking the passing of long stretches with not so much acceptance as a sense of unwillingness to do anything else. He is a man who fell into a rut so deep he doesn’t even know how to begin climbing out of it. The genius thing isn’t that it’s played as despairing, but that Don seems so comfortable with it. It’s easier for Don to just let life be shitty and unfulfilling as the years pass him by.

And it’s that passiveness that proves the undoing of this middle-aged malaise, which is the best most subtle joke of the film. Don complains the whole way about finding who the mother is of this kid that he isn’t even convinced exists, but only in begrudgingly playing along does he eventually discover just how empty and unhappy he was. It’s a journey towards rediscovering unhappiness in a healthy, positive way. It’s about learning to care again. It is, taken in the frame of Jarmusch’s filmography, about getting over the bullshit pretense and reconnecting with what it means to be human.

I’m not sure if that’ll actually pay off in the long run, but if it’s an artist’s statement I couldn’t be happier. There is the same wry humor that Jarmusch is known for laced throughout, but Broken Flowers seems much more self-aware of how ridiculous Jarmusch and Murray and any person can be. It’s that strange gentle appreciation for its aging, pathetic hero that makes it all work so well. The small beats, the kinds of things that only exist because the director has spent his career making movies about nothing but small gestures. A lead that has in some ways become his own mythos, a symbol of charming dickish apathy so blurred over time that you never know where the character or actor or man begin and end. Maybe nobody knows. The film seems content to discover the questions, answers are a whole other obstacle to tackle.

But if knowing the question is half the battle, then why can’t there be movies (and great ones) about that process? Thankfully there are. Broken Flowers is great, and Jarmusch project or not, is one I am happy to return to now and in the future.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Directed Viewing: The Zen of Murray and “Broken Flowers”

  1. Pingback: Broken Flowers Essay | Super Extreme Close Up

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