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Juan Is the Loneliest Number: Bill Murray prepares to enter the void in 'Broken Flowers.'

Something About Murray

In 'Broken Flowers,' director Jim Jarmusch and star Bill Murray do exactly what fans want them to do

By Bill Forman

Jim Jarmusch's best characters spend much of their time in the zone, but not quite the one we hear about on Oprah. John Lurie's blank-generation slacker in Stranger Than Paradise, Forest Whitaker's Zen hit man in Ghost Dog and now Bill Murray's laconic Don Juan in Broken Flowers--all have their own ways of zoning out in order to transcend, if not transform, the realities in which they find themselves.

Murray, of course, has already demonstrated a knack for speaking volumes with his mere presence in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, so it's no surprise that Jarmusch makes the most of that talent here. When we meet his character, an apparently retired computer entrepreneur cursed with the name Don Johnston ("It's Johnston with a T," he tells bemused strangers), he sits uncomfortably on the leather sofa of his sparsely appointed living room, staring blankly at a TV that happens to be showing Douglas Fairbanks' cinematic swan song, The Private Life of Don Juan (though it's clear from Don's impassivity that he could be watching anything at all and it would make no difference). Intruding upon this scene of domestic ennui is Don's latest ex-girlfriend (Julie Delpy), who comes down the stairs with bags packed and emotions flaring, which Johnston accepts with the same melancholy resignation.

Still, it's this breakup--along with an anonymous letter from a woman who claims to have had his son after their breakup two decades earlier--that sends Murray's character off on an the existential road trip that comprises most of the film. Don is inclined to remain in his state of wistful inertia, but his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a working-class family guy with a wide-eyed interest in sleuthing, convinces him to go off in search of the mystery woman. "Only you can do it," insists Winston without a trace of irony, "because you understand women!"

What follows is an episodic journey through the parallel universes of Don's past, as he follows Winston's Internet-mapped itinerary to revisit women he'd parted ways with decades earlier. These reunions--alternately hysterical, poignant, quirky and intriguing, with fine performances by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton--are punctuated by dream montages in which Jarmusch wryly mimics mystery conventions much as Wayne Wang did in Chan Is Missing. But mostly, it's the understated absurdity of ordinary life that Jarmusch nails as he sends Murray's character further and further out of his comfort zone. "Couldn't you have rented me a Porsche or a car I might drive?" he asks when Winston calls for an update. "I'M A STALKER IN A TAURUS!"

An indie filmmaker to the end, Jarmusch has never been keen on Hollywood conventions like plot resolution, so anyone expecting to come away with a sense of closure--let alone an unambiguous moral lesson--from Don's story is likely to go home disappointed. Still, as much as Jarmusch may deny it, his films (the great ones, not the overly pastiched throwaways like Coffee and Cigarettes) address the moral condition of our world and our relationship in increasingly genuine ways.

If Donnie Darko took the premise of It's a Wonderful Life and reversed it--showing the main character how much worse off the world will be if he doesn't die--Broken Flowers takes the formula into a realm that's neither heroic nor dystopic and therefore far closer to reality. By journeying into his past and finding out how his old loves' lives progressed in his absence, Don discovers just how little effect he's had on anyone's life. Or has he? If that uncertainty leads to a certain hollowness, it can also be liberating. "The past is gone--I know that-- and the future's not here yet," muses Murray's character at one point. "All we have is this--the present--that's it."

Whether or not that Zen ideal can--or even should--be manifested in contemporary America life, there's no doubt that Jarmusch, Murray, Wright and the rest of the talents who contributed to Broken Flowers have created a minor masterpiece that speaks eloquently in even its quietest moments. Like Murray's character, the film presents a droll exterior, but beneath it resides a sly sensitivity to both the peculiarity and the universality of the human condition, reverberations of which are likely to linger long after the journey ends.

Broken Flowers (R; 105 min.), directed and written by Jim Jarmusch, photographed by Frederick Elmes and starring Bill Murray, Jessica Lange and Sharon Stone, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz.

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From the August 10-17, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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