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Photograph by David Lee

Carmen Electrified: Jessica Lange plays Carmen, one of Bill Murray's many ex-lovers, in 'Broken Flowers.'

The Cool World

Bill Murray, another 'Dead Man' walking, revisits the loves of his life in Jim Jarmusch's 'Broken Flowers'

By Richard von Busack

BILL MURRAY'S coolness reaches a temperature of absolute zero in Broken Flowers. If it's true that Murray's original appeal was with stoners, then he has the perfect collaborator in director Jim Jarmusch, whose movies go with marijuana like eggs go with bacon.

Big smokers of marijuana aimed to get to a certain spot of deadened feelings, to inhabit an emotional prairie—a plain in which even little jokes have grandeur, like the way the mesas at Monument Valley rise so abruptly out of the desert floor. Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) excels in inexplicable humor, such as this film's baffling title reference to D.W. Griffith.

The director has worked with a number of warm-blooded actors to contrast with the slow-cooked aridness of his vision. He has used the humanity of the much-maligned Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, Forest Whitaker and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Yet, somehow, Bill Murray must be the most perfectly in tune for what Jarmusch is trying to do.

Murray plays Don Johnston, a retired computer engineer, affluent and emotionally offline. He spends his afternoons in his darkened room. We catch him watching the 1934 movie The Private Life of Don Juan. In this obscure movie, the great romancer (Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in his final role) goes into hiding and is presumed dead, the better to escape his creditors. Don Juan gets the pleasure of watching his own funeral, but then realizes that his ego is starved because he is no longer a celebrity. The women resist him, not knowing who he is.

The hideout of Jarmusch's modern Don Juan is darkened by the leave-taking of his live-in girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy). She sums it up: "I'm like your mistress, except you're not married." Thanks to that banal miracle that is the delivery of the daily mail (Jarmusch shows us how it all happens, step by step, in the title sequence), Johnston receives a letter from an anonymous ex-girlfriend. This unsigned note on pink stationary informs Don that he is a father. Under pressure from the gregarious, wacky neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Johnston hits the road on a coach-class Mapquest and Expedia journey across America.

On the way, he registers the provocation of younger girls, as well as his sense of regret at not bothering. Chloë Sevigny, as a secretary, is too brisk for the elder man, but he can't ignore her honey-colored legs. He graciously overlooks the fact that his old lover Laura (a randy Sharon Stone) has a nudist daughter who is called in all seriousness Lolita (Alexis Dziena).

Guilt plays over Johnston, who looks like a pinched nerve feels, as he sees another former girlfriend, Dora (Frances Conroy, the born-without-pores matriarch of Six Feet Under), living in a minimansion so pastel-colored it would make Douglas Sirk scream.

Then, it's on to Carmen (Jessica Lange, looking as embittered as late-period Geraldine Page). Finally, Don heads into the backwoods, where Penny (Tilda Swinton), the angriest woman of them all, is waiting.

I'm disposed to like any movie that features a lot of women, a lot of travel and a lot of music. Despite those pluses, Broken Flowers needs to be recognized as the feel-good-about-feeling-bad road movie of the year. It's a natural double-bill for Sideways, except that we're left to imagine what makes this Johnston run from contact. This accounts for the hollowness some viewers have complained about. (A friend who is a technical writer suggests that this remoteness is an occupational hazard for male engineers. The opposite sex doesn't come with manuals.)

And some could say that Broken Flowers is a reprise of Lost in Translation, but there are different shades in the characters. Here Murray doesn't play a famous man, and he has more desire to fade into the superbly photographed underbrush. Jarmusch keeps the landscape anonymous, filing off the identities of the places he films. He helps himself to Nabokov's idea of creating imaginary states of the union.

We're certain that Don's road heads through New Mexico, Indiana and Pennsylvania, but apparently the film was all shot in New York and New Jersey. Jarmusch is impressed by the extremes of life in these United States, how far Americans are allowed to take their passions: how antiseptic Dora's life is, how barbaric Penny's life is, how given to generous fun Laura is.

The old "Love Letters" plot serves Murray's dashing irony well. He's a man who does so little and yet is so immensely watchable. The mystery is solved when Murray examines his bruised chin in a car's rearview mirror. Of course, he carries himself like Robert Mitchum, with the slow swiveling of those blasé, clouded eyes, with the same pursed mouth. While Murray doesn't have that self-amused handsomeness of Mitchum—who does?—he has that imperturbability that represents everything that's best about civilization. This old movie trick of a man pretending not to feel because his feelings are so great is played here as well as I've ever seen it played.

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 selected theaters.

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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