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MovieHype00650 – BROKEN FLOWERS

Like many people, I became a big fan of Bill Murray during the ‘90s. Two of his biggest comedies were WHAT ABOUT BOB and GROUNDHOG DAY. (I liked THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE even better, a combination of the first two.) There’s no doubt in my mind that Murray is a gifted comedian.

And yet, I’ve always found an edge of sadness to Murray’s comedy. It seemed to me like the humor was hiding a gulf of desperation, hidden just below the surface. We started to see that in 2003, with Murray’s Oscar-nominated role in LOST IN TRANSLATION. In the film Murray plays an actor on the downward end of his career, forced to make commercials in Japan; utterly tired of his life. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU continued this trend, albeit in a more madcap way. (Both links lead to reviews I’ve done.)

With BROKEN FLOWERS (available on video) Murray takes the character two steps further. He plays Don Johnston, a wealthy retired businessman, who not only is tired of his life but has flat given up. (The character name is an inspired choice, both because the character resembles—or used to—a lothario, but also because people keep confusing him for Don Johnson of Miami Vice, and Murray continually has to tell people, “no, with a t.”)

Director Jim Jarmusch quiet films, telling the story by watching what happens. In BROKEN FLOWERS, we definitely get a quiet film. At times we almost get a silent film, as Don Johnston is unwilling or unable to muster even the energy for a conversation.

Here’s the set-up. On the morning that his latest girlfriend leaves him, Don gets a mysterious unsigned letter. A relationship from 20 years ago has given Don an unknown son (who may come looking for him).

Don’s neighbor Winston, played hilariously by Jeffrey Wright, is an amateur detective, and Don’s letter intrigues him. He gets Don to write down every woman whom this letter could possibly be from, coming up with five names. Winston tracks the women down, and sets up a road trip for Don to visit them, attempting to uncover the secret of who is son really is.

Don really has no interest in this trip. Yet he does it. The five women are very different, of course, played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton (who played the White Witch in NARNIA).

What Don gets is really a glimpse of what his life might have been like, had he chosen any of these paths. It’s somewhat hard to figure how this character could have had so many relationships (I mean, five, just in the one-year time span of possibility?), but perhaps like Murray, Don used to be funny and charming, only recently sliding towards the abyss.

Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief: 2 (out of 10). A movie-conceit that he would get a letter like this after all these years and the woman wouldn’t even sign it. Everything else seems spot on.

Genre Grade: Recently we’ve had the Dramedy (dramatic comedy). I’m tempted to call this a Sademy, but that’s too close to sodomy. Let’s call is a Melancholy Comedy (a Melancom). LOST IN TRANSLATION is the most recent example, and in this genre I’d give BROKEN FLOWERS a B+.

Family Fare? Other than that one jarring scene, fine for older people. In fact, I think they’d relate to it more. Just be sure they don’t mind ten seconds of naked teenager.

Kickassability? I’m going to give a generous 11 (out of 100), because Jeffrey Wright is just hilarious. I wanted to watch a buddy film just of these two.

Pantheon Percentile: For what it is BROKEN FLOWERS is very effective. However, due to the quiet sad tone this just isn’t going to appeal to that many people. Still, any chance these days to watch Murray is a treat. 60.

The mystery of the story is actually not a big factor. We are here to watch Don on his journey, tap into his past painfully, as he does the same. Through it all Murray doesn’t speak often. He doesn’t have to. With a mastery of minimalist acting we understand how he feels by watching his eyes. The ending doesn’t bring a resolution so much as the hint of possibility; what was, and what still might be.

BROKEN FLOWERS is a great character study, and at times bitingly funny, but I don’t want to mislead you. There is very little action, and not much dialogue. Entire scenes play out silently, watching Don on his trip. Also, the film is shrouded in sadness. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a main character this depressed throughout an entire movie. Still, if you are a big Bill Murray fan or appreciate a quiet contemplative film, this might be right up your alley.

One final note. (MILD SPOILER, BUT YOU’RE BETTER OFF KNOWING THAN NOT.) The film is Rated R, which seemed odd since there are barely any swear words in the movie. However, one of the women from Don’s past (Sharon Stone’s character, and boy does she look different), has a teenage daughter appropriately named Lolita. (Who would name their daughter that? You’re just asking for trouble). The girl answers the door in a robe, and invites Don in, a total stranger, with apparent ease. Anyone who's been around the block has to know she’s coming on to him. Yet when she reappears in a minute, stark naked, it’s still quite a shock.

I mention this because I saw the film with my parents, and it wasn’t an experience any of us wanted to go through again. Just in case you have impressionable family around, you need to be aware.

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