If you’ve seen a movie directed by Jim Jarmusch, you know that all the pieces of his jigsaw puzzles generally don’t get used by the final credits. Some of the elements of his slow-moving, quick-thinking pictures just don’t fit anywhere; he moves at his own pace, unspooling tales of alienation and existential moral dilemmas with the confidence and sophistication of a director who has a plan he’s keeping to himself.
None of his characters consistently act in a way that might be construed as normal movie behavior, either. They stare into the distance long after we’ve stopped looking for what they’re seeing, or they talk about life with an off-kilter weariness that suggests we’re only getting a glimpse into fractured personae. This all can be fun and infuriating, both of which are exactly his point.
Broken Flowers, Jarmusch’s latest, won second prize at Cannes this year. It stars Bill Murray as an “over-the-hill Don Juan,” according to his latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy), who made a fortune in computers but now sits around his darkened house wearing jogging suits, listening to classical music and watching movies about Don Juan. He gets an anonymous letter from a woman claiming to be the mother of a teenage son he never knew existed, and with the help and planning of his excited, resourceful neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright, his distinctive voice trickling down your ears like honey), he sets off on a quest to find every potential candidate. Perhaps it’s to learn something about himself'or perhaps because he’s bored. Jarmusch doesn’t say until the final minute of the film.
Those extraneous puzzle pieces start showing up early. Of course, Murray resembles an aging Don Juan about as much as he looks like the fading action movie star he played in Lost in Translation. His mid-career renaissance, which includes the self-contained, world-class overachievers he has played thrice for Wes Anderson, is about smart but emotionally apathetic men. His work as Don Johnston in Broken Flowers is his most contemplative yet, but he never seems to be coasting; he radiates too much innate smarts, and we feel like we know too much about the crags in his face ever to take him lightly. Sharon Stone, who plays the race-car-loving first candidate on the list, recently provided a shockingly apt simile for Murray’s screen presence, which is like the crossword puzzle answer that’s been bugging you for hours finally being provided by your housecat. She compared him to the steel balls held by Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny: We never quite know what they mean, but we can’t stop looking at them because we’re convinced they’re about to reveal something, even if they never do.
And that potential largely encapsulates the allure of Broken Flowers. Stone is followed by Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton (for about 90 seconds) in this cavalcade of girlfriends past, all appearing in sharp, cutting scenes with an emotional poignancy that will spark anyone to think about what they’d say to their own past loves. Don doesn’t really have anything to tell them; he’s not even certain the letter was real. Jarmusch unspools this journey with his usual quirks: slow dissolves, long silences and a cool soundtrack that maintains one long mood of disinterested discovery.
Again, the pieces don’t all fit. The trips are totally unnecessary, given what Winston already figures out about the women from the Internet, and Don confoundingly insists on maintaining his “hidden agenda,” as Lange’s pet psychologist calls it, by refusing to disclose the real reason he’s looking up his flames. Jarmusch’s targets for his gentle satire'airline travel, white trash, faceless suburbs, New Age quacks'are all stale, but Murray stirs Broken Flowers from this rut in its final moments, when Don awakens from his emotional coma just enough to entertain the possibility of enlightenment. In these circumstances, that’s just about right.