Bill Murray as Don Johnston
Jeffrey Wright as Winston
Sharon Stone as Laura
Frances Conroy as Dora
Jessica Lange as Carmen
Tilda Swinton as Penny
Julie Delpy as Sherry
Chris Bauer as Dan
Alexis Dziena as Lolita
Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant
Larry Fessenden as Will
Suzanne Hevner as Mrs. Dorston
Pell James as Sun Green
Christopher McDonald as Ron
Meredith Patterson as Stewardess
Heather Simms as Mona
Mark Webber as The Kid
Although he’s almost upstaged by Jeffrey Wright, Bill Murray gives another memorable, albeit subdued, performance in what could be Jim Jarmusch’s strongest film in years.
When lifelong bachelor Don Johnston (Bill Murray) gets an anonymous letter from an ex-girlfriend from decades ago saying that she had his baby, he begins a quest to find which woman from his past might have written the letter so that he can meet the son he never knew he had. On his journey, he learns that many of the women he once knew have changed, even while he has remained mostly the same.
For his first full feature film in six years, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has taken a surprising departure from his gritty storytelling style, removing his distinctive stamp to create a sublime film that shows his maturity and growth as a filmmaker. Wisely, he has brought along Bill Murray, who had a small part in his anthology Coffee and Cigarettes, giving the actor another chance to show that he’s also gotten far more subtle with age, as well.
The film starts out slowly, setting up the premise of Murray as an older bachelor who’s become accustomed to his simple way of life after making a small fortune in the computer market. As we meet him, he’s just broken up with his girlfriend Sherry–a far-too-brief bit of screen time for Before Sunset‘s marvelous Julie Delpy–because she thinks he’s been cheating on her with other women. That doesn’t matter so much to the laid back bachelor, because he’s just found out that he may have a son by a former girlfriend. His best friend and neighbor Winston, played by Jeffrey Wright, is quite the opposite of Don, already having a large family, and he’s far more excited about the mysterious letter then Don, since it gives him a chance to play the sleuth. Before Don knows it, Winston has set up an itinerary for Don to travel across the country to revisit all of his ex-girlfriends in hopes of solving the mystery and finding his son.
This is where things start to pick up, because up until that point, the film spends a lot of time casually observing Don as he spends his time sitting in a room by himself. It doesn’t give much room for Murray to do what he does best, which is to improvise and react to the situations around him, but it allows Murray to explore a more understated and minimalistic role that’s a worthwhile addition to Murray’s already impressive resume. In some ways, it’s a lot like what Jack Nicholson did in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. Don’s uncomplicated nature means there isn’t nearly as much dialogue as Jarmusch’s past films, but Murray is able to make Don an interesting and likeable character with a strong story arc despite having fewer lines than usual. Jarmusch’s script does offer up some great gags like when Don opines to Winston that he’s turned into a “stalker in a Taurus” or a recurring gag about Don’s surname sounding like that of the “Miami Vice” actor.
Besides the minimal dialogue, the other major difference for Jarmusch is that it’s his first film in which there are more roles for women than men. The movie’s best scenes are those in which Murray gets to interact with his ex-girlfriends, all played by talented older actresses. Sharon Stone gives a great turn as the wildest of them, more than willing to sleep with Don for old times’ sake, while her daughter, appropriately named Lolita, also tries to make a play for the debonair older man. “Six Feet Under”‘s Frances Conroy plays a woman who seems to be miserable in her domesticated bliss, having given up her own wild days as a flower child, and then there’s the always great Jessica Lange as an ex who has found success as an “animal communicator” and whose receptionist, played by Chloe Sevigny, is more than a bit suspicious of Don’s surprise visit. Although she’s barely on screen for more than a few moments, Tilda Swinton is almost unrecognizable as Don’s last stop on the trip, although she’s obviously the least happy to see him.
Despite all the great female characters, when it comes down to it, the performance that sticks out is that of Jeffrey Wright as Don’s mystery-solving pal Winston. It’s just a strong character-type supporting role that invigorates the film’s slow set-up with new comedic life. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more of him as the movie progresses, but Winston’s presence is always felt by his frequent phone calls to Don’s hotel room, usually while he’s sleeping.
Ultimately, the way Jarmusch decides to end the movie may leave people scratching their heads, since there isn’t the type of closure or resolution that some may hope for after following Don’s journey. Still, it winds up being Jarmusch’s best-developed and most mature films in quite some time.
The Bottom Line:
Those who enjoyed Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation or Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt should be able to appreciate Bill Murray in this more subdued role, although the film’s slow nature and the amount of time it takes to get going might turn some of Murray’s longtime fans off a bit.
Broken Flowers opens in select cities on Friday, August 5.