Dead on the Vine
With his latest swims through the Cineplex in Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and most recently Broken Flowers, Bill Murray has created a new character. This character is called "sit-silent-with-blank-expression-while-contemplating-the-bad-hand-that-life-has-dealt-you" man. Hardly a superhero, Murray's becoming a caricature of himself.
Much like how Jerry Lewis carved out a niche (albeit a very lucrative one) as the stumbling, bumbling beaver-toothed village idiot in so many pictures or how Sean Connery risked singularizing himself as James Bond, so has Bill Murray pigeonholed himself into a typecast character mold. His minimalist style of acting worked brilliantly in Lost in Translation, failed miserably in The Life Aquatic, and begins to grow tiresome in Broken Flowers. Murray can say tons without speaking a word, but when coupled with writer/director Jim Jarmusch's rigorously episodic style of storytelling, more is needed. That's not to say I hated this movie. For the most part it's a smart, moody thinking man's film that challenges the viewer and yearns for participation. But at other times, it's a character study that, due to its overstated simplicity, comes up a bit shallow.
Murray is Don Johnston, a casual man of means now faced with the prospect of living life without a partner. Not that he has ever been someone to settle down anyway, but his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy) hits the door proclaiming "I'm your mistress, except we're not even married." Don sits motionless on the couch as she leaves, doing nothing to stop her.
He then receives an anonymous letter from a purported old flame who tells him he has a 19-year old son. Don's the kind of man who would most likely ignore the letter, but its mysterious origins raise the eyebrows of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur mystery sleuth. Convincing Don that he must track down his unknown son, Winston compiles addresses, road maps, plane tickets, rental cars, and motel reservations. As Don reluctantly shuttles off to dig up his past, the film welcomely shifts gears a bit and becomes a melancholy road trip picture.
The vivid assortment of old girlfriends, played by the likes of Sharon Stone as a lonely closet organizer, Jessica Lange as a reserved animal communicator, Tilda Swinton as a white trash biker, and Frances Conroy as a beaten-down prefab real estate agent, give the film its only sense of dynamic flavor and even laugh-out-loud hilarity. But sadly, none are in the film long enough. Contrasting the banality of Don's life, these characters become a curious parade of circus freaks providing a welcome break from the doldrums of Don's pitifully anemic life. Each gives us only myopic little glimpses of what Don must have been like in his younger years. But we want to know more. Why does Don not own a computer despite the fact that he made his fortune in the computer business? Why did none of these relationships work out?
The women's curious reactions to Don's sudden appearance, give no clues. One is outwardly happy to see him, one has since switched to the other team, another is clearly angered, and yet the fourth seems barely to care about him at all. Jarmusch misses a great opportunity to infuse a sense of person into Don. We get the point that he has led a meaningless life to date and is now searching for purpose and resolution. The point is not missed, but the lack of a human connection to the story's main character is. And for that reason, Broken Flowers left me wanting.
Murray and Jarmusch can clearly create a delicate little mood film that walks the fine line of art house and mainstream. But with no real enemy, very little emotional conflict, no character revelation and Bill Murray playing Bill Murray, Broken Flowers dies on the vine. At times it's beautiful and tantalizing, at others it's a frustrating display of what could have been.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.)
Review also posted on www.franksreelreviews.com.