The National Catholic Review
Richard A. Blake
Broken Flowers

Broken Flowers needs no narrative. Bill Murray’s face says it all: unspeakably sad eyes that might once have had the twinkle of a comedian, pitted jowls and a mouth far too small and puffy for a face grown larger as his forehead nudges his hairline backwards. He stares intently at his huge plasma television set apparently unconcerned with the content on the screen. His expression scarcely changes when the set is turned off and he stares at the wall in near darkness. He observes time passing by with fascination and bewilderment, lost in his own thoughts, yet incapable of reflection that might make sense of it all. His universe is spinning into a middle-age vortex toward...what?...chaos? Yet he lacks the resources to stop it. He just watches; actor and spectator are one. His life is more a curiosity than a mystery.

 

Murray’s character, Don Johnston, has reached a point in life where he is burdened by memory and baffled by anticipation. He founded a software company that set him up comfortably for life, but he refuses to have a computer in his home. He doesn’t go to work any longer. A dedicated bachelor, he has never been able to maintain a lasting relationship with anyone. Sherry (Julie Delpy), his most recent companion, calls him an “over-the-hill Don Juan,” as she rolls her suitcase through the front door and out of his life forever. His name also provokes smiles as people see the irony in the rumpled figure before them sharing a name with Don Johnson, the actor who played the swashbuckling, pastel-clad detective in the television series “Miami Vice.” Johnston, with a t, he repeats. When Sherry leaves, he rolls into a restless sleep without leaving his leather sofa. Should he drink to forget her? He stares at the open wine bottle on the coffee table in front of his sofa. He reaches for the glass, changes his mind and lets his hand drop. What difference does it make? Why change his track suit, his position on the couch or even his facial expression?

Computers represent a world of logic and intelligibility, a world that Don has abandoned or perhaps more accurately allowed himself to drift away from. Not so his opposite number, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a neighbor recently arrived from Ethiopia. Winston has three jobs, five children and a determination to become a successful mystery writer. He has found a Web site that provides something like masterplots and devices for mysteries, and he eagerly consults his computer to solve his characters’ conundrums. He also turns to the Web after Don shows him an unsigned letter from a former lover, informing him that he is the father of her son, who at age 19 may try to contact him. Don has no way of identifying the author. Winston finds the mystery intriguing and tracks down information about the women whose names Don reluctantly supplies. Don is not interested in stirring the gray embers of past relationships; Winston can’t restrain his eagerness to solve the mystery of the unknown son and make sense of Don’s life. Don has long ago concluded that it doesn’t matter.

Like Odysseus searching for his spiritual home, yet apprehensive about finding it, Don finally agrees to embark on Winston’s computer-generated journey, equipped with Yahoo addresses, Expedia plane tickets, car rentals and hotel reservations, and MapQuest roadmaps. Airports, roads and rented rooms blend into one with no sense of local geography. Don’s exploration of his past takes him through a world as colorless and characterless as USA Today and CNN used desperately to fill the time between flights. Anchorage or Atlanta, it’s all the same. In one lovely touch, Don stumbles onto the tiny balcony of his hotel room and looks out at a busy road with another hotel just like his across the street. The world passes by in its motorized frenzy of unspecified commerce. It’s the same anywhere and everywhere. To what purpose?

His past girlfriends provide a glimpse of what might have been, not that he really cares at this point. Laura (Sharon Stone), the widow of a Nascar driver, lives with her 15-year-old daughter, aptly named Lolita (Alexis Dziena). Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (Sue Lyon) wore heart-shaped sun glasses, and in tribute to the 1962 “Lolita,” this new nymphette wears heart-shaped earrings. The effect is the same, and with Bill Murray rather than James Mason as the target of her flirtation, outrageously funny.

Dora (Frances Conroy, known chiefly as the fragile matriarch in HBO’s series “Six Feet Under”) has found prosperity and dullness with a realtor who made a killing with prefabricated luxury homes dropped into upscale cookie-cutter developments in the undifferentiated suburbs of some city, somewhere. The dinner conversation becomes blurred in its unrelenting dreariness. Don stares at his food, while listening to Dora’s painfully dull husband natter on, says nothing and finally skewers a stack of boiled carrots onto his fork. For him all foods taste alike, as bland as his dinner companions.

Carmen (Jessica Lange), a mixture of kookiness and intelligence, has become a prosperous animal communicator. She’s at once tightly wound and laid back. Carmen was inspired to pursue her career, a kind of psychotherapy for pets, by her diseased dog, ironically named Winston. Impassive as ever, Don sits in her waiting room, trying to take in her clientele, animal and human alike, and her robustly earnest receptionist (Chloë Sevigny). Finally, this computer-age Odysseus visits his trailer-park Penelope, Penny (Tilda Swinton), whose farmyard bristles with disemboweled car chassis and two thugs who may have failed to pass the I.Q. test for bit parts in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” They don’t take kindly to strangers.

Jim Jarmusch, the director and screenwriter, has assembled an extraordinary collection of cameo roles for some of the brainiest actresses in the business. He’s given them funny, yet beautifully understated dialogue, and each seems to relish her role (as well they might, since so few juicy roles are available for intelligent, beautiful fortyish actresses). After their flings with Don Johnston, they have chosen to move on with their lives, down different paths, to be sure, but with an energy that only highlights the creeping paralysis that has effectively ended Don’s life in his middle years. He’s gone nowhere beyond his couch and his plasma TV. Jarmusch has been so long identified with independent, film school productions, like his series “Coffee and Cigarettes,” that he is easily mistaken for a “young” filmmaker. Born in 1953, he has in fact reached an age when as a person and artist, he has accumulated enough memories to try to sort them into some kind of coherent pattern, and like Don Johnston and most of us of a certain age, he may have had a tough time fitting all the pieces together.

Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray, who was born in 1950, have also reached that time when their growing collection of memories begins to be touched by intimations of mortality. Does the past offer any indication of what is to come? A young philosophy student asks Don about his own philosophy of life. Don tells him the past is gone and the future isn’t here yet, so there’s only the present. That’s all. This is indeed an accurate summary of Don’s guiding principle, but it hasn’t gotten him far in life. It’s a melancholy assessment of anyone’s life. Don has failed to grasp that a human life is the sum of one’s memories and expectations, and the present is crucially important as the means to get from one to the other. That is the mystery.

Winston, with his faith in rationality, feels certain that he can solve the mystery. Don Johnston and Jim Jarmusch disagree. A mystery can only be savored like a flower, never solved like a computer glitch. Johnston seems to conclude that it doesn’t really make any difference. For him, life has little more meaning than those bouquets of flowers he brings as peace offerings to his former lovers, only to find them ruined at the end of their encounter. Jarmusch is less certain than Johnston. He asks us to question whether Don Johnston is the person we have allowed ourselves to become or a person we pity for shortchanging his humanity. At the end, the camera does a 360-degree track around a motionless, expressionless Don Johnston. Look at him carefully. Try to see beneath the surface.

Is he a tragedy, or a warning?

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the film studies program at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

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