George Orwell said that by age 50 every man has the face he deserves. Now in Hollywood, by age 50 it’s more likely that movie stars pretty much have the faces they can buy (are you listening, Cher? Meg Ryan? Burt Reynolds?). We are all grateful to those, like Bill Murray, who know how to use a face that has been lived in. The pouches under his eyes tell the story and make it interesting and sad and funny all at the same time. His is just one of a set of brilliantly complex and vivid performances that make this film a moving exploration of all we do to find meaning in our lives.
In “Broken Flowers,” Murray plays Don Johnston. He keeps having to emphasize the “t” when people think he shares the name of the actor from “Miami Vice.” But his name is really a reference to the legendary ladies’ man, Don Juan. When we first see Don, he is sitting on the sofa of his big, luxurious, but somewhat sterile home, watching the 1934 movie The Private Life of Don Juan on television. The most recent of his many girlfriends (Julie Delpy) tells him she is leaving him. He is vaguely distressed, but does not try to argue with her. if he was not exactly expecting her to leave, he seems resigned to it.
Then he receives an unsigned letter typed on pink paper, from a woman who says she had his child 19 years earlier. Don’s next door neighbor Winston (the terrific Jeffrey Wright) is a loving family man and an amateur detective. He assembles a dossier for Don, complete with plane tickets and Mapquest directions on how to find the four likeliest prospects for having written the letter. He sends Don off, telling him to be alert for the color pink and for evidence of a typewriter. Don goes, not because he is as interested as Winston is in finding out whether he has a son but because he doesn’t really have anything else to do.
So, Don goes off on a journey, but, this being a Jim Jarmusch movie, it is more about mood and moment than motion. There is a sense of sequence, as each of the women is emotionally and literally less accessible than the one before.
Sharon Stone is Laura (perhaps a reference to the great love of Petrarch?), the widow of a race car driver and the mother of the aptly named Lolita. She is completely warm and inviting, with no expectations or demands, genuinely glad to welcome Don and no illusions about how long he will stay.
Dora (perhaps a reference to the great love of David Copperfield?), played by Frances Conroy of HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” is now a very proper realtor living in an antiseptic McMansion with her husband. But she manages to exchange some glances with Don that show she shares some fond memories.
Carmen (Jessica Lange) (perhaps a reference to the operatic femme fatale?) is more withholding, answering Don’s questions as though each word is costing her money. Is there a romantic relationship with her female colleague? How did she go from being a lawyer to being a…pet psychologist? And then there is Penny (maybe a reference to Penelope, who waited for Ulysses to come home), played by Tilda Swinton, almost unrecognizable under Morticia Addams-style hair. She has nothing to say to Don; she just decks him and tells the current man in her life to beat him up. The last woman on the list is dead. Don places a pink bouquet on her grave.
People keep telling Don he is a Don Juan, but if that’s true, it’s not in the traditional sense. He never tries to romance any of these women, and when a woman he meets along the way indicates that she might be interested, he does not respond to her. He seems to walk through life in a cloud. Back at home, he tells Winston the mystery has not been solved. And then he has an intriguing but ambiguous encounter that raises the question of questions themselves, and whether answers really matter.
Parents should know that the movie includes some extremely strong language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking and drug use, and brief violence.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Don made the choices that he did and what he and Winston think of each other. What do you think happened in his relationships with Laura, Dora, Carmen, Penny, and Sherry?