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Cool World

Bill Murray winds his way through suburbia in "Broken Flowers."

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Murray plays Don Johnston ("with a 'T,'" he is often forced to explain), an aging Don Juan uneasily resting on the laurels of early retirement from the lucrative computer business. A pink letter arrives in Don's foyer the day his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out on him. Its anonymous revelation of a teenage son registers with him in a moment of surprise, but he quickly returns to his routine of apathy. His neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth always up for a mystery, is more interested. He wants Don to investigate and arranges a trip that sends Don out on a multicity journey — featuring a cyclical soundtrack typical of a Jarmusch film — to visit all the old flames who might be his baby's mama.

They include a shapely MILF (Sharon Stone), whose Jesus-loving husband died in a NASCAR fireball, a hippie-turned-real-estate-agent Ziplocked into one of her climate-controlled model homes (Frances Conroy), a former lawyer who became an animal psychic (Jessica Lange), and a firebrand (Tilda Swinton) who went the way of white trash. Thus "Broken Flowers" drives us out of sequence through suburban life, in all degrees of upkeep.

It would have been easy for Jarmusch to simply make fun along the way. He does, on occasion. (It's unavoidable out there, with people eating waffle-cut frozen carrots and talking to animals.) But it's his intention, not to mention his style, to mostly raise that eyebrow and mist those eyes. Strip away the connective plot tissue, and "Broken Flowers" is a series of dry observances of the goings-on behind vinyl siding. It seems to ask, What does boredom make of people? Such questions drive Don to distraction. It doesn't matter which motel window he looks out of or where he is on the highway; the view is the same. Strips of gas stations and fast-food centers line up at every stop. His identical white rental cars reflect the landscape, and the tedium of it sends him into his only real outburst: "Couldn't you have rented me something I could drive, like a Porsche?" he complains to Winston. "I'm a stalker in a Taurus." At least he has Winston's mix CD of Ethiopian pop music. Outside the vehicle, all you hear is quiet desperation.

Compare "American Beauty," that comely, vibrant wasteland that relished the tremors that rippled beneath a placid surface of green lawns and SUVs. In Jarmusch's suburbia, the air is disquietingly still and colors are bled to cool tones; the roses are an anesthetized pink, the color of timidity and even death. "Broken Flowers" is Jarmusch's first really disturbing work. Nothing is redeemed in this voyage, and all is left uncertain. We are left to guess, for example, why Don's girlfriend leaves him in the first place, and why he left all these women behind. But this is Jarmusch, who has told interviewers repeatedly that he is not interested in what Hollywood would call a plot, preferring the small occurrences in between the action.

"Broken Flowers," admittedly, could be taken as a bit self-indulgence, more specifically as mere episodes of a hipster looking down his nose (Jarmusch, via Murray's) at the inelegant hicks. But the landscape seemed real, and I continue to admire the boldness of a filmmaker's risk with the boring, everyday aspects of life. Don's encounters are also reminders. This is the world around us, the one we contribute to, either actively or by washing our hands of it. Scurrying behind a pair of dark shades won't save us. R (107 min.) **** S



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