Ever since Bill Murray's transformation from an ex-SNL funnyman headlining mainstream crowd-pleasers to a middle-aged character actor appearing in acclaimed alternative fare, much has been written about his newfound standing as America's most understated performer. So it was only a matter of time before this master of outward immobility would appear on the radar of writer-director Jim Jarmusch, whose eclectic resume (almost as diverse as that of John Sayles) is packed with movies in which an "action scene" would be considered the moment when a character expends the energy to light a cigarette or get up off the sofa.
With rare exception, the lead actors in Jarmusch films tend to be low-key and laid-back: Think Johnny Depp in Dead Man, Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or the principal cast of Stranger Than Paradise. Murray is presently carrying on the tradition, first with his brief appearance in Jarmusch's vignette-driven Coffee & Cigarettes and now with his starring role in Broken Flowers (***1/2 out of four), a lovely little film that has emerged as one of the brightest -- and most atypical -- releases of the summer movie season.
In a nutshell, Broken Flowers takes Murray's accidental tourist from Lost In Translation and drops him into About Schmidt Americana territory. Here, Murray plays Don Johnston, whose seemingly catatonic existence receives a much-needed jolt -- not so much from the departure of his fed-up girlfriend (Julie Delpy) as from the arrival of an anonymous letter claiming that he has a son who's been kept hidden from him for the past two decades. Don's next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, talks him into providing him with a list of long-ago girlfriends who could possibly be the mother of his child (and the writer of the letter). Armed with this info, Winston creates an itinerary and pushes Don out the door with the mission of visiting these women and solving the mystery. "I'm a stalker in a Taurus!" Don sputters at one point, but the journey is one he eventually realizes he had to take.
So what we have, in essence, is that most American of movie genres: the road picture, in which an inquisitive individual travels across this great land of ours not only seeking some sort of closure but also coming into contact with citizens who cover the nation's social strata. (Jarmusch accentuates the familiarity of the story structure by never identifying any of the cities or states during Don's whirlwind tour of the US.) Don's former squeezes indeed represent a wide cross-section: the NASCAR widow (Sharon Stone) with a nympho daughter appropriately named Lolita (Alexis Dziena); the immaculately dressed businesswoman (Frances Conroy) with a thriving real estate practice and a doltish husband (Christopher McDonald); the pet psychologist (Jessica Lange) who claims she can understand what animals are saying; and the biker chick (Tilda Swinton) who lives in a dilapidated shack with two roughnecks at her side. As Don moves from woman to woman, the mystery of the son becomes almost incidental -- more prominent is the way hostilities increase the further he travels, as if by opening the door to his past ever wider, he risks permanent damage to the roiling emotions he's kept bottled up.
Broken Flowers is a movie of wry humor and wry observations, yet it's precisely because of Murray's approach that the film works as well as it does: Rarely has an actor conveyed so much by doing so little. Yet Murray's not working alone, thanks to the contributions of the women playing his former flames. An unrecognizable Swinton, proving herself as much the chameleon as Cate Blanchett, has one short but powerful scene, while Lange and Conroy punch across their characters' respective feelings of resentment and resignation. And Stone's no-nonsense approach to her part reminds us how effective she can be when given the right role (a rare happenstance, to be sure).
Because Jarmusch never feels the need to spell out every character nuance (blink and you'll miss the telling moment when Lange's receptionist, played by Chloe Sevigny, lays claim by placing her hand on her employer's back) or tie up every narrative thread (some will feel the ending's a cheat), Broken Flowers is certain to strike many viewers as much ado about nothing. But for those who appreciate the delicacy with which Jarmusch can spin a tale, the film will seem like that proverbial rose by any other name.