Often compared to his Lost In Translation role as fading actor Bob Harris, Bill Murray’s role as computer pro Don Johnston in the latest Jim Jarmusch film (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law), Broken Flowers, is similar in that the two characters are old and have fame that neither relishes.
Don is a lifetime bachelor, who at the start of the film sees his girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), leave him. Don shows no emotion and does nothing while Sherry walks away, except for a brief moment where Don calls out her name. His neighbors are the lovely Mona and the ambitious Winston, whose many children constantly remind Don of his contrasting life.
Don receives an anonymous letter from a former girlfriend he had 20 years ago informing him that she gave birth to his son, whom is looking for him. To Winston’s planning and urging, Don embarks on a road trip to the homes of the five girlfriends in search of clues (a typewriter or anything pink) to find the writer of the anonymous letter.
Jim Jarmusch directs Broken Flowers very deliberately. Jarmusch makes sure to differentiate this road movie from his landmark road movie, Stranger Than Paradise. Instead of being the traditional road movie about taking a journey, Broken Flowers is instead about the differences between the various places during the journey. The journey itself is subdued through minimal driving and muted landscape shots.
Don is silent for many parts of the film, especially during the scenes when he visits the various homes of his former girlfriends. He isn’t silent because he regrets going, feels guilty about their break-up or doesn’t have anything to say, but because he’s thinking about how his life would have enfolded had he stayed with each girl (or if he stays with each girl). He’s reflecting on whether his decision to be a bachelor was the right one.
Through brief surreal flashbacks, Don connects the women in his life – why each was important to him. Flowers blurs the connection between home and people. Each woman lives in very different places, and Don wonders how the women’s lives diverged so much in 20 years. Even Sherry has diverged from the woman he met to the woman that left him (“a mistress to an unmarried man”).
Bill Murray has one of his best performances in Flowers, and he shows how important subtlety and body language are in acting (which he perfected in Lost In Translation). Lines can be spewed out with adequate results, but having presence is a rare quality. Roger Ebert says “no actor is better than Bill Murray as doing nothing at all, and being fascinating while not doing it.”
Jarmusch tries to reinvigorate the road film with Broken Flowers by mixing surrealistic elements and reworked plotlines (the trip isn’t Don’s idea but Winston’s). There are classic road movie moments like Don’s complaint to Winston for reserving a Ford Taurus to drive, a dig on “redneck” America and long shots of the landscape (although the shots are few). Comparisons to Lost In Translation, in retrospect, seem like a must. But please note that Broken Flowers is no Lost In Translation and Lost In Translation is no Broken Flowers. Lost is about connecting to people, while Flowers is about trying to find that connection.