On "Saturday Night Live" and his early movies, Bill Murray started as a kind of party commando, crooning ridiculous lyrics to the Star Wars theme or leading rag-tag losers in rebellions against authority figures. You'd have never guessed Murray would become one of cinema's most intriguing under-actors.
In his recent work, though, Murray experiments with how far he can dial it back. In Rushmore and Lost in Translation, he'd frequently keep his face slack, his voice level, and use only the smallest wince, the barest inflection, to hint at depths of irritation, depression, or even boyish excitement.
Perhaps Murray the minimalist succeeds so well because we know he's capable of such cutting sarcasm and monumental tantrums -- his still waters run acidic. But Murray's less-is-more method fits a little too closely with the sensibility of Jim Jarmusch, the deadpan indie auteur and writer/director of Broken Flowers. Jarmusch's tale of midlife re-evaluation makes such a virtue of impassivity, the film feels anesthetized, rousing itself only in the last 10 minutes. Imagine Sideways, only without the action scenes.
At first we wouldn't associate Murray's blank, track-suited couch potato with Don Juan, one of history's most famous womanizers. But Jarmusch hits us over the head with parallels. The character's named Don Johnston. He watches an old Don Juan movie on TV. His best -- perhaps only -- friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright) repeatedly tells him he's like Don Juan. We couldn't ignore the symbolism even if we wanted to.
Don barely puts up a fight when his dissatisfied girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out on him just as a mysterious letter arrives in the mail slot. The anonymous writer claims Don has a 19-year-old son he never knew, so at Winston's excited urging, Don compiles a list of the possible mothers among his old girlfriends. Winston even books Don a travel itinerary for tracking the women down, and though Don claims he's not interested, he speaks in such a passive, needy way, he might as well be begging Winston for help.
Jarmusch's cult status attracts famous actors, so Broken Flowers boasts a stellar cast with surprisingly little to do. Don's old flames include Sharon Stone's randy widow, Frances Conroy's rat-racing Realtor, Jessica Lange's hippie-ish "animal communicator," and Tilda Swinton's bitter biker chick. At his awkward, unannounced visits, Don encounters everything from one-night trysts to physical violence.
Broken Flowers occasionally spices things up to keep the audience alert, thanks mostly to Lange's animal patients and Stone's exhibitionist daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena). The actresses all do fine work, but the meetings ultimately play out in the same melancholy, inconclusive key. Don glimpses a series of roads not taken, from passionate poverty to suburban sterility, all of which cast his present state in an even more depressing light.
Don voices some words of hard-earned wisdom at Broken Flowers' affecting conclusion, but until then, he reveals nothing of what's going on in his head or heart. We get interesting hints, though: When he overhears some girls on an airport shuttle talk up a "cute" fellow passenger, Don notices the younger man, and we can tell, just by his attention, that he's imagining the stranger as a potential son or an early version of himself. Such moments give Broken Flowers undeniable cumulative power. When Don's trip ends, he's left with a devastated expression on his face, as if he's realized that a life pursuing pleasure has left him with nothing to show for it and nothing to offer anyone else.
In Broken Flowers, Jarmusch crafts the most unglamorous road movie imaginable, lingering on repetitive scenes of Don drowsing on airplanes and driving rental cars along identical highways. Perhaps Jarmusch means to puncture the romanticized notion of "Don Juans" and romantic quests, to float the idea that mundane, tedious experiences dominate modern life, even those episodes that should be full of mystery and adventure. Broken Flowers makes some sharp points about hollow pursuits and middle-aged angst, but movie audiences -- and Bill Murray -- can find better uses for their time than such a dispassionate movie about life's deficit of passion.