There comes a time in a man’s life when mortality becomes a reality and he looks back at what he has done, at what he will leave behind. At this point in his life he must deal with the past before he can face the rest of his future. While many films have dealt with this topic few have done so with the empathy and grace as does ‘Broken Flowers’. Don Johnson (Bill Murray) has always been what society refers to as a ladies man, a real Don Juan. His string of broken relationships lies buried in the deep recesses of his mind until one faithful day. Don receives a letter informing him that twenty years ago one of his flings resulted in a son who is now searching for him. Until this event Don’s life had fallen into a rut. Although he made his money in the computer craze of the nineties he currently doesn’t even own one. He is content to just sit on his sofa as if the slightest movement is not worth the effort. His latest girlfriend, Serry (Julie Delpy) is leaving him, fed up with being with an ‘over the hill Don Juan’. Even this does not get a reaction from Don as he continues to sit on the sofa. In contrast to Don is his next door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who is an immigrant from Ethiopia and works three jobs to support his wife and five children. Winston is an amateur sleuth and pushes Don to go out and find who the mother of his child is. Don comes up with a list of five possible women, one of whom has died leaving four old flames for Don to visit.
First on the itinerary is Laura (Sharon Stone). Her husband was a NASCAR driver who died in a flaming accident leaving her with a young daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Lolita is sexually advanced beyond her years although it does appear that the literary reference is not apparent to either mother or daughter. Don is visibly disconcerted when he wakes up next to Laura, no longer able to even fake intimacy. Next on the trip through his youth is Dora (Frances Conroy). She is a prim older woman who sells real estate with her husband Ron (Christopher McDonald). During a dinner visit Don sees a photo of Dora in her hippy days, a picture that Don took. Third on the list is Carmen (Jessica Lange), a former lawyer who now works as an animal communicator. Along with her assistant Chloë Sevigny Carmen speaks to the pets of her clients resolving problems in the home. The fourth and final woman on the list is Penny (Tilda Swinton). Her yard is cluttered with motorcycles, and her biker boy friend is less than pleased to see an old flame of Penny. At last Don visits the grave of the fifth, deceased former lover and emotion starts to set in on the long jaded man.
This is the kind of movie that works because all of the parts just come together so well. There is a synthesis of acting, writing and direction that pulls the audience in, slowly but certainly. Don is obviously the modern Don Juan, a man who has lived his life serving nothing other than his own hedonistic pleasure. Now, he is forced by circumstances to face the results of such a life. When he looks over at his neighbor Winston he sees everything his self gratification has prevented him from having. Winston has a wife and children; he works hard to support them and has at least made a mark on the world for his hard work. Each of his former girlfriends has moved on after him, they have made lives for themselves. While some are stuck in ruts at least they have lived. Don has repeated the same pattern over and over and now the only hope for anything that will live past is life time is the possibility of a son he has never met.
Bill Murray has joined what seems to be the latest trend, comedians taking on more serious roles. We have seen other wild and crazy comics like Steve Martin and Robin Williams delve very successfully into more dramatic roles. While Murray will always be fondly remembered for his over the top antics in films like Ghostbusters, Stripes and Caddy Shack he is now on the level of serious Oscar contention. Like Murray’s ‘Lost in Translation’ he plays a man broken by the choices he has made in his life. There is humor here but now instead of being derived from slapstick it originates in a deeper more human place. Few actors have been able to make such a drastic change in their careers with such grace and talent. This film is also filled with women of incredible talent, albeit all too brief in screen time. Sharon Stone gives one of her better performances in years as Laura. She is the typical NASCAR wife, living with the exploits of her husband, knowing his passion for driving is what has left her as a single mother. Alexis Dziena is a young woman who is just know coming into her own. Known now for her role in the science fiction television series, ‘Invasion’, Dziena exudes naiveté and sex appeal at the same time. As anyone who has followed the HBO series ‘Six Feet Under’ knows Frances Conroy is one of the most versatile actresses around. She has such range that it is amazing to watch her even in short roles such as this. As with the others playing Don’s ex girlfriends she has to create a fully formed and realistic character is a mere few minutes. Jessica Lange has matured well in her craft. Her scenes with Chloë Sevigny show that she can still create chemistry. Tilda Swinton is another actress that is the consummate professional limited here only by the brief time afforded her character. Each actress takes so little and makes so much out of it.
Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch is one of those art house darlings that many concerned only with mainstream cinema are unaware of. This is most unfortunate as the man is talented. His best known previous work ‘Coffee and Cigarette’ was nothing short of brilliant. When I heard that Jarmusch and Murray were going to team up on film I couldn’t wait to see it. I was not disappointed. Jarmusch knows that his strength is in presenting the story in an episodic fashion. Here he uses the episode and its sub plots to forward the over all theme of the film with fantastic results. Like ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’, ‘Broken Flowers’ hits the audience on a visceral level. The story is forwarded by the stellar performances and the straight forward direction. There are no fancy camera work, too many independent film directors seem like they are doing a senior project for film school. They cram in every camera and lighting trick they can think of. Jarmusch makes his camera into a voyeur, the unblinking eye that captures real human moments. His writing immediately connects with the audience making us care about a basically unlikable character such as Don.
A film like this deserves a top notch presentation and Universal gives it to us. This film won the coveted Grand Prize of the Jury and Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival so nothing less than a perfectly mastered DVD would do. The video is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 and it is flawless. The color balance is spectacular, slightly muted but reflecting and reaffirming the mood set by the actors. There is no breakdown to the contrast even in scenes where shadow and light collide. The Dolby 5.1 audio is far better than most Indy films are given. The channel separation is excellent although the rear speakers are used mostly for a full, rich ambience. There are a few outtakes with Bill Murray and a behind the scenes look at the cast. This film may be overlooked at Oscar time by more controversial entries but it demands to be part of any serious collection.