More film commentaries

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Broken Flowers

Written by Donna Schaper

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Focus Features, R rating

Broken Flowers, the latest film from director Jim Jarmusch, is something of a puzzle. The movie is centered around Don Johnston, played by Bill Murray, a preoccupied man who lives in the luxury penthouse/prison of his own narcissism. Don made his money in computers, but now doesn’t even own one. He is an “aging Don Juan” who barely reacts when his girlfriend, who clearly likes him, walks out on him in the movie’s first scene. He displays little more emotion when he receives an anonymous letter stating that 20 years ago he may have fathered a son and that the 19-year-old boy may be searching for him.

The puzzle lies in trying to unravel Don’s attraction. Why do the film’s other characters, and the audience for that matter, care a flip about a man who doesn’t even make the effort to sip from a glass of wine sitting before him. For some reason, people are willing to get close to Don and be his mirror. When a man of means is bored by things that have the capacity to enthuse others, our curiosity is piqued. Why?

The plot develops around Don’s search for his son. Not only does he not know if the boy really exists, he does not even know which of his girlfriend’s might be the boy’s mother. Left to his own passive devices, the questions would remain just that—unanswered. Another person must chart Don’s journey to find his possible progeny. Don’s neighbor, Winston, played by Jeffrey Wright, is an ambitious man from Ethiopia, with family, jobs, a passion for mystery and a genuine interest in Don. Winston has energy, talent, and oomph—and shows it by throwing himself into the project of Don’s finding his son.

Winston is so interested in Don’s finding his way that he does all the research for him, guiding him through his past by way of visits to old “girlfriends.” He acts as executive secretary for Don’s search. He books cars, hotels and outlines maps.

Winston’s only clue is the anonymous letter—typed in red ink on pink stationery. “Take them all pink flowers, and see what happens,” he counsels. Don’s self absorption is so thorough that, instead of thanking Winston for the clues, the preparation, the rentals of cars, he complains to Winston from the road; “I am driving a Taurus, why couldn’t I have a Porsche.”

And so Don’s journey begins. His first visit is to Laura (Sharon Stone), whose NASCAR-champion husband died in a car wreck. Laura’s daughter, the appropriately named Lolita (Alexis Dziena), offers herself and her popsicles to Don in two sad sex scenes, neither of which has any power to stir him.

The second stop is with Dora (Frances Conroy), whose life in real estate, making prefab houses, makes Don almost interesting in comparison. The third woman, Carmen (Jessica Lange), at least has the gumption to be obnoxious towards Don. Carmen has a thriving practice as an “animal communicator,” able to hear messages such as that from her cat, who claims Don has a hidden agenda.

Interestingly she is right. Don is looking for life, for God, for a lost son— and is willing to expend energy on his journey. Yet, he has no clue as to just how important this search really is.

The fourth woman is Penny (Tilda Swinton). With Penny, we almost think something might happen. Yet the scene only further illuminates Don’s inability to feel. While other characters react to a threat toward a loved one with passion, Don cannot.

I didn’t know what disturbed me most about the movie: the sexism of one man “starring” while four women are explored only as pages in his romantic history; or was it the theological emptiness? Why did a man who seemed to have it all not give a damn about life or God? Or was it just the sneaking suspicion that there are more empty lives than I had imagined, devoid of the sacred, of enchantment, of vigor, of enthusiasm.

The picture is as broken as the flowers and their hope. They are pink in a way that makes fun of multi-colored gender roles and passionate love affairs. There is even a touch of racializing in Winston’s vigor for Don: he is a man of color trying to give a white man a lease on life. In this movie monochrome takes on multi-color and wins a small victory, only to lose a large one to the hope we retain for less alienated life.

Copyright @ 2005 Donna Schaper.