In Broken Flowers, the notion that “you can’t go back” is put under the creative microscope of writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Perennial bachelor Don Johnston (er, that’s with a “t” and not coincidentally a close match for the legendary lover, Don Juan) is brought to life by Bill Murray in a performance that is strong on understatement but which may trigger a few yawns from those who prefer Vivace to Andante appassionato.
A handwritten envelope containing an unsigned typed letter, postulating the existence of a nineteen-year-old son born and raised by an old flame, arrives in Johnston’s mail on the heels of being dumped by his current interest, Sherry (Julie Delpy). This mysterious, inciting incident propels Johnston on a road trip into the distant past to track down the unidentified mom. Reluctant at first, his Ethiopian neighbour and amateur sleuth Winston (Jeffrey Wright as the “Watson” to Murray’s “Sherlock”), plans the entire sojourn, offering telephone back-up and tips along the way. His list of telltale clues includes pink stationery, a “real” typewriter and signs of a boy being raised (e.g., basketball hoops and trophies). Aided by his trusty computer (with product placements from MSN and MAPQUEST—even Exxon gets a cameo in a motel window shot) Winston has also researched the name changes of the exes and discovered that one of those died five years ago, leaving four living candidates in the mother-of-your-son sweepstakes.
The film unfolds like a stage play: a collection of scenes punctuated by fades-to-black and a cantus firmus music travel-track courtesy of Mulatu Astatke, which initially adds zest and verve, but the ever-cracking trumpet becomes annoying by the second stop. Clever cinematic insertions of potential new conquests, early-twenties lost-looking men and an on-the-job postal worker silently reinforce both Johnston’s unstoppable lechery and his “Son, is that you?” angst as he confronts his past with the requisite bouquet of pink flowers.
Each of these encounters offers a different tone and insight into the ravages of a two-decade absence. Most fun is the mother-daughter team of Laura (Sharon Stone, widowed and working as a professional closet organizer) and Lolita (Alexis Dziena, the epitome of her namesake whose pink robe eagerly gives way to a family jewels attire, cranking up the Don Juan overdrive in one old enough to be her father). Carmen (Jessica Lange) turns out not to be a cigarette-making gypsy but rather an animal communicator. This sequence (drolly aided and abetted by thigh-exposing, very personal assistant Chloë Sevigny) provides the film’s best laughs, topped only by a hilarious cell phone exchange between Johnston and Winston in the early frames.
Naturally, there are convincing leads at every stop—the subtitle Pretty in Pink would be spot-on if not already taken—and, compellingly, magical looks of sudden recognition. Confronting couples with their past at every turn, Jarmusch makes some great points about the notion of revisiting long-ago trysts, but stumbles slightly as the voyage concludes with some on-the-nose philosophy and, tellingly, Frederick Elmes’ circling camera reveals all angles of Johnston’s dilemma. Nonetheless, anyone with a “past” will find something that resonates. JWR