Bill Murray depressingly hilarious in tragically comic Broken Flowers

Bill Murray’s character may be down, but he can still rock a tracksuit.
Bill Murray’s character may be down, but he can still rock a tracksuit.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of allocine.fr
Don Johnston (Bill Murray) finds himself in an awkward position when he wakes up to ex-flame Laura (Sharon Stone).
Don Johnston (Bill Murray) finds himself in an awkward position when he wakes up to ex-flame Laura (Sharon Stone).
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of allocine.fr

Film Review: Broken Flowers @ The Screening Room

Bill Murray began his career as a member of the legendary 1970s cast of Saturday Night Live and like many of his peers he soon moved on to movies. In the 1980s and ’90s he became a star by creating a sarcastic, cynical, yet likeable persona in such hits as Stripes and Ghostbusters. His early career peaked with Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, a film that showcased his comedic style and also added a sense of melancholy to his performance. It was a strong dramatic role as well as a comedic one and proved that perhaps there was more to Murray than his fellow SNL veterans.

This theory was confirmed in 1998 when Wes Anderson cast Murray in a small yet crucial role in Rushmore. Murray dropped his wisecracking, improvised style and Anderson gave him a role filled with sadness and regret—skills hinted at, but not fully explored in Groundhog Day. It was a brilliant, understated performance underscored by Murray’s deadpan comic sensibility.

Since then, Murray has used that character as a template for a new screen persona in two further collaborations with Wes Anderson as well as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. For the past few years cinemagoers have been treated to a new sub-genre: the Bill Murray art movie. The latest addition to this series is Broken Flowers, a film by independent New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, a master of deadpan comedy. It’s a match made in filmmaking heaven, and while it may not be the greatest movie either Murray or Jarmusch has made, it is certainly a worthy addition to both of their careers.

Bill Murray stars as Don Johnston, an aging womanizer who is dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy) at the start of the film. Johnston is in a funk, he’s depressed and lives a life without focus. Having made a fortune in computers, he no longer works, and instead lazes around his house watching T.V. all day. When Delpy’s character leaves him he cannot even bring himself to approach her at the door. He merely lies on his couch with a sigh of defeat. That same morning he receives an unsigned letter from a previous lover stating that he has a 20-year-old son.

Encouraged by his neighbour, Johnston sets out on a road trip to visit all the women who may have sent the letter. Like all Jim Jarmusch movies, very little actually happens. The movie is episodic and open-ended. It is essentially a series of short films about Johnston’s encounters with former lovers. This is a common trait of Jarmusch’s work. He has always been a filmmaker more interested in character and atmosphere than plot (his second feature Down by Law was a prison escape movie without any scenes that discussed or depicted the escape).

Broken Flowers bears Jarmusch’s trademark combination of comedy and pathos as well as his strong sense of realism. He once described his first film as “The Honeymooners directed by Yasujiro Ozu,” and this label could be applied to any of his works.

Broken Flowers offers a series of intermittently tragic and comic vignettes. Each encounter between Murray and a former lover offers a distinct little film of its own. His first stop with Sharon Stone—and her appropriately named daughter Lolita—is a sex farce. It is slight, but probably the comedic highlight of the movie. The second woman Murray visits (Frances Conroy) is an ex-hippie who has married a real estate salesman—played by Christopher McDonald, best known as Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore. This section plays as a gentle satire of mundane suburban life.

As Murray continues his journey, he encounters an animal psychic played by Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton as a broken woman living in a trailer park. Structurally, the movie is not unlike Jarmusch’s last feature Coffee and Cigarettes, a series of short films revolving around people drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, with Murray’s quest serving merely to link the shorts. At least, it plays that way until the end, when Murray encounters a young man he believes to be his son. This finale is vague, yet quietly devastating without being emotionally manipulative.

What the movie lacks in dramatic structure, it makes up for in style and performance. All the aforementioned actresses are remarkable. Stone and Lange craft funny, yet believable comedic caricatures, while Tilda Swindon manages to create a visibly disturbed and damaged woman in only a few minutes of screen time. Underused character actor Jeffrey Wright—perhaps best known as the villain in the Samuel L. Jackson remake of Shaft—shines as Johnston’s neighbour, a man who works three jobs to support his five children, but tries his hand as an amateur detective in the little spare time he has.

But it is Bill Murray who is the anchor of the film. He is in every scene and is able to inject life into the potentially placid Don Johnston. Murray has the odd skill of making crippling depression seem absolutely hilarious. Most of his screen time is spent giving silent, deadpan expressions and he somehow manages to do it without getting boring or repetitive. This is definitely not his strongest performance—the character is simply far too withdrawn and reserved to give Murray much to do—but he is certainly the only actor who could play the role so effectively and effortlessly.

Broken Flowers is Jim Jarmusch’s most accessible movie to date, although is far too slow-paced and subtle to cross over to the mainstream. The movie has Jarmusch’s trademark comic style, but it is filmed in colour, rather than his usual black and white and has more camera movement and editing devices than his minimalist style usually allows.

As a result, Broken Flowers looks more like a conventional movie than Jarmusch’s usual work. While the movie should get him a few more fans, Jarmusch’s fingerprints are still all over the material, so it still should be a little too strange for most.

While the film is definitely a worthy addition to his career, it is a little too slight to be considered one of his best works. Broken Flowers is fun, but it is so light and breezy that it does not really stick with you long after you see it unlike Stranger than Paradise and Dead Man. But, if you are a fan of either Jim Jarmusch’s distinctive style or Bill Murray’s recent work, then it is a film that cannot be missed.

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