Bill Murray has two phases in his career that can best be described as pre-RUSHMORE and post-RUSHMORE. Before starring in RUSHMORE, Murray mostly starred in major studio, large-budget pictures such as GHOSTBUSTERS, GROUNDHOG DAY, and STRIPES. He played leading, larger than life characters that were primarily written to showcase the actor’s trademark dry sarcasm. RUSHMORE marked a new phase in Murray’s career and we got to see a different side of Murray that was more subdued. His characters continued to exhibit the same sarcasm, but this time we got to see Murray inject more serious and introspective aspects into his characters. Most of the films Murray has made since RUSHMORE have also been low-budget, independent films, which has nothing to do with the demand in hiring the actor. In fact, I believe Murray continues to be in high demand to star in just about anything he wants, but he chooses to star in smaller, more serious films instead of the big budget blockbusters he made in the 80s.

2005’s BROKEN FLOWERS is a nice companion piece to Bill Murray’s acclaimed LOST IN TRANSLATION. Like his character in LOST IN TRANSLATION, Murray plays someone who looks back at his life and regretfully realizes that it has gone by and has left a void in it. Both of Murray’s characters experience a midlife crisis that resolve themselves in interesting ways in both LOST IN TRANSLATION and BROKEN FLOWERS. The latter film was directed by Jim Jarmusch, a widely admired filmmaker in the indie film world. In my opinion, BROKEN FLOWERS is Jarmusch’s closest attempt at making a mainstream movie, but it by no means lessens the film’s impact or quality.

In BROKEN FLOWERS, Bill Murray plays Don Johnston (the ‘t’ is pronounced), a lifelong bachelor who made a fortune in the computer business and retired early. Don is referred to as Don Juan by his next-door neighbor friend, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), for the slew of women Don has been with throughout his life. One day Don receives an anonymous letter in the mail that is apparently from one of his past girlfriends. She informs him that he has a son, now 19, who is on his way to meet him. Don is naturally curious as to which ex-girlfriend he knocked up and with the help of his neighbor friend, an amateur investigator, Don sets out on a road trip to visit his girlfriends and find out which of them sent him the letter. The ex-girlfriends are played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and Julie Delpy.

The film has a nice opening title sequence of a letter being processed through the U.S. Mail service. The sequence is matched with a cool Nancy Sinatra-esque song (“There is an End”) by The Greenhornes (I’ve never heard of them either). Jarmusch does a wonderful job in not only creating three-dimensional and interesting characters, but making sure that every character is fully realized in the way they dress and in their physical surroundings. For example, Don Johnston lives in an early 80’s-chic house, which indicates he made his fortune in that time period and he’s never redecorated his house since. Its always dark inside the house and all the furniture and decorations are neat and look untouched. His daily apparel of choice is a track suit. His neighbor, Winston, who is wonderfully played by Jeffrey Wright, is a Jamaican family man who works three jobs. His house reflects his character’s nationality (bright color interior design) and his hectic family life (children’s toys all over the place and a generally cluttered looking house).

Don Johnston and Winston could not be more different from each other and this makes their relationship dynamic and interesting to watch. Much of what makes this interesting to watch and what makes all the other interactions in the film also fun is seeing how Don will react (or not react) to all of these characters he comes in contact with. Bill Murray does not say much in this movie. He spends a considerable amount of time during the movie simply staring into space or staring at the other character he’s spending time with. Those of you accustomed to seeing wacky, talkative Bill Murray will be disappointed because that doesn’t exist here. Don is introspective, quiet, and mostly serious except for a few moments here and there where we see glimpses of Murray’s sarcasm. You begin to actually pity Don for the obvious regrets he seems to feel for the things he has missed in his life (wife, kids) and for his realization that he’s too old to continue his old Don Juan lifestyle.

The highlights of this film and its selling point is Don Johnston’s visits with his former girlfriends. Every one of these scenes is absolutely great and its impossible to point to a favorite one. However, two that immediately come to mind are Don’s visit with Sharon Stone (and her teenage daughter, who is aptly named Lolita) and his visit with Debra Winger (still looking stunning at whatever age she’s now at), who plays an animal psychic. Murray doesn’t do anything but react to these women who once shared a life with him. I wanted to see so much more of these interactions because they truly are funny and beautifully written and performed. It was also nice to see Jarmusch get actresses that we no longer see much of on the big screen (like Debra Winger) rather than cast whoever is the latest hot young TV or movie actress.

BROKEN FLOWERS is not without its criticisms. I didn’t expect a conventional ending from Jim Jarmusch that tied up every loose end, but I still felt the ending was unsatisfying. (SPOILER ALERT) Don Johnston finally meets his son and there is a nice conversation they share, but where neither acknowledges that they know they are related to each other. When Don finally asks the kid whether he’s his son, the kid freaks out and runs away. The film then simply ends with Don staring out after the kid. I wanted something more than this even if the overall resolution was intended to have Don Johnston continue his lonely life.

My other issue with the film was that although I generally enjoyed Bill Murray’s performance, I also don’t think that staring into the camera for an inordinate amount of time is either good acting or good character development. Can we safely call this shoegazer acting? I understand this is a style of acting that has become more popular especially in indie movies and there is certainly a time and place for it, but not when I reach the end of the film and I don’t feel like the character has revealed enough of himself to give me a good understanding of him. For a film that has done this successfully, check out Peter Sellers’ performance in BEING THERE.

BROKEN FLOWERS is a nice little indie film worth watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It doesn’t offer any profound insights nor would I rank it among Bill Murray’s best films. The main appeal of this film are the funny interactions Bill Murray has with the various actresses in this film. Unfortunately, these scenes are far too short and you want to see more.

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