Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, which richly deserves the Grand Prix it won at Cannes, begins tiresomely, with a long, gratuitous analysis of mail processing and delivery. It improves. In a tour de force of formal expression, Jarmusch creates a “road picture” that articulates a tension between goal-oriented plot and an open-ended transport through a train of encounters and challenging experiences. Retired both from business and from being a lifelong uncommitted lover in a long line of relationships, one of which has just ended, Don Johnston—a silly pun on Don Juan—is jolted out of his complacency. An unsigned note arrives informing him that he is the father of a nineteen-year-old boy who has left home to find him. The mother of the boy has sent the card—or so it seems (Johnston is suspicious from the start); but which one of his partners might she be? Given the time-period that his alleged son’s age indicates, there are five possibilities. After learning that one of these women is deceased, Johnston proceeds to visit each of the remaining four in New York and New Jersey in an effort to discover which, if any of them, sent him the note with red script on pink paper. To all but one of the four, to whom he brings wildflowers, Johnston brings a bouquet of pink roses. With each approaching encounter, we anticipate a resolution of the plot corresponding to the mystery that Johnston is attempting to solve. Tweaking this prospect is a glorious event: Johnston loses his way in his rental car and must turn around and backtrack in what could have been the final leg of his journey. However, after the last of the progressively more hostile encounters with lovers from his past, Johnston visits the grave of the one who is deceased, placing pink roses there. The entire road trip ends in irresolution, and Johnston returns home frustrated, believing that this teenaged stranger or that one—any boy he sees—may be his son. (When Don chases one boy and then another, Jarmusch is providing a trenchant illustration of someone’s being “at loose ends” in his life—and the boys also may illustrate this about themselves.) The flowers in a vase in his own home have disintegrated during Don’s absence. Another message on pink paper arrives, promising at least the possibility of some sort of resolution; but the film, even in the town where Don lives, concludes out-of-doors, with Johnston, mentally, spiritually, symbolically still “on the road.” It becomes powerfully clear that Jarmusch’s tension between goal-oriented narrative plot and open-endedness of form is, finally, a metaphor for conflicting forces determining the course and the emotional space of human lives.
To say the least, Broken Flowers brings to a heady blossoming one of the most original ideas ever to invigorate an American movie. Certainly it has its nagging side, with a nosy neighbor (played by Jeffrey Wright) who, presumably happily entrenched in his own large family, prods Don on, even going so far as to arrange Don’s whole itinerary for him, including airplane trips, hotel accommodations and automobile rentals. Jarmusch’s head is in the right place: Don is too entrenched in his complacency to be self-motivated regarding getting to the truth of the matter of the possible mother of his possible son. But because of the irritating character of neighbor Winston and of Don’s own resistance, viewers must endure agony before the film gets Don on the road.
Let me give just one of the ways that this American film surprises and delights me. A cliché runs thusly: a former Casanova rues the empty life he has lived, hankering after what the ordinary family man has. Yet in Jarmusch’s film we are treated to an entirely opposite perspective: the seemingly content family man is so steeped in dissatisfaction that he appropriates the life of his middle-aged Casanova neighbor, setting him off on a vicarious odyssey whose underlying motivation is the amelioration of his own empty life. Within this large thematic circle, the smaller thematic circles—the confrontations between Casanova and women from his past—likewise reflect instances of jealousy and dissatisfaction. All this cumulatively and in tandem arrives at a vision of a low-morale nation so at odds with its self-promotion, where everyone is presumably free to pursue happiness as an inalienable right. Everything in Jarmusch’s funny, melancholy film goes down unexpectedly, differently, and yet the sum reflects a recognizable America.
Sherry, the young woman who has just walked out on Don, saying he made her feel like a mistress even though he is not, and never has been, married, is played by Julie Delpy, so wonderful in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004). Here, I am sorry to report, she is inadequate. On the other hand, Bill Murray is wonderful as Don.
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