The received wisdom is that Bill Murray could be filmed doing absolutely nothing for 90 minutes and would still be absolutely captivating. Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is based heavily upon this principle and goes some way to disproving it.
It doesn’t help that it’s based on that hoary old narrative – “Visiting old flames to see what they can teach me about my current predicament”. “High Fidelity” did it with more bite; here, it’s used to place Bill Murray in a series of situations that range from the slightly awkward, to the slightly threatening, and to see what happens. The “old flame visiting” is balanced with the “you have a long lost son” narrative, itself uncomfortably close to Murray’s too-recent “The Life Aquatic”. “Broken Flowers” seems like its running over old ground and has nothing particularly to say about it.
Someone has sent Don a letter on pink paper saying that his 19-year-old son is on his way to see him. The letter is unsigned, and Murray’s neighbour Winston persuades him to visit four of his old girlfriends, each of which may be the mother of his child, and the author of the letter.
Murray’s character, the japesomely-named Don Johnston (“JohnSTON. JohnSTON,” moans Murray, periodically), is a nothing, a zero, a “Man Who Wasn’t There” who is even less there than Billy Bob Thornton. He sits around in horrible tracksuits all day watching cartoons. He is supposedly a great lover, who understands women better than his nebbish neighbour Winston, but it’s a curiously defanged performance from Murray, which demonstrates none of the charm or explosive wit that Murray is famous for, and was presumably supposed to bring to the role. His sole nod to his comic past is overloading a fork with carrots, a momentary clowning that is not dwelt upon by Jarmusch.
Jarmusch keeps things moving at a snail’s pace, albeit a snail that occasionally wanders around a large pile of salt really, really carefully. If there were interesting things happening, then we wouldn’t have minded lingering, but as it is, this is a series of sketches plotted very deliberately so that all symbolism and hints towards the solution of the son’s mother are left maddeningly vague. At the end of the film, we are no wiser as to who is the mother, whether Don even has a son, or if the whole thing wasn’t made up as a sort of test by Don’s frustrated girlfriend. In fact, we don’t even know if Don cares about the fact that he has a son, although we kind of think he does. Every character is draped in elusiveness, and I’m not even sure if we feel anything for any of them. I think this might have been an oversight.
You see, what the response should probably be to this film is to empathise deeply with Murray’s hangdog loveliness, to giggle at the way he enters into worlds he could have been part of, to look at him and say “hey, that schmuck could be me!”, but he’s actually a bit of a shit, an unfeeling bastard who is passive and driveless and unapproachable. He’s less an anti-hero than an anti-human, and not even touches of Jarmusch’s trademark weirdness (Murray getting beaten up without saying a word by some odd bikers, Jessica Lange’s dog having the same name as Don’s neighbour) can rescue it from being formless and pretty much pointless.
Distracting, rather than entertaining, I would be surprised if I remembered much about “Broken Flowers” in two months time. Sorry, Bill.