The opening credits of Broken Flowers is like porn for postal geeks, as we follow a pink envelope through virtually the entire process of it being mailed, sorted and delivered. I was oddly reminded of the little girl in the red coat from Schinder’s List as I watched this pink beacon sail through a sea of white and manila envelopes.
Then the letter reaches the doorstep of Don Johnston (Bill Murray) and the movie starts daring you not to like it. If you didn’t like Lost in Translation, chances are you’re going to despise this movie, because it has all of the previous film’s “faults” and not nearly as much of the charm. If you did like Lost, then I have no idea what you’ll make of this one. I loved Sofia Coppolla‘s 2003 non-romantic romantic comedy but I can’t bring myself to feel quite the same level of affection for Jim Jarmusch‘s offering. It’s not offensively bad by any stretch and Murray’s performance is a study in subtlety in action. Or, more to the point, subtlety and inaction. Half the time Murray’s character is on screen, I had to fight the urge to check him for a pulse. It’s a superb performance in the service of a character that was hard to identify with.
The first half hour or so of this film is very strong, as we’re introduced to Don, a middle-aged dot com millionaire and his next door neighbor and employee, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an Ethiopian emigre with five kids, three jobs and a fetish for detective work.
Don is in the process of being dumped by him most recent girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), who apparently got tired of checking him for a pulse. We get the impression that she’s one in a long line of women in the life of this aging Don Juan. This is kind of surprising, because we barely see Don exert enough energy to leave the couch, let alone meet women. They must be drawn to his sad, puppy-dog eyes or something.
At this point, Don discovers the letter and makes the mistake of reading it to Winston. It’s from an anonymous old flame who claims that Don fathered a son 20 years earlier and that the now-19-year-old man is looking for him. Winston takes it on himself to try to discover who wrote the letter, much to Don’s annoyance. He’d rather ignore the whole thing.
Don doesn’t put up much resistance to Winston’s bulldog tenacity and, despite his objections, he’s soon on the road to visit four of the five women who were part of his life at the time. The fifth can be ruled out, being dead, making it unlikely she wrote the letter.
Laura (Sharon Stone) is a NASCAR widow (literally) whose daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), brazenly lives up to her literary namesake, despite the extreme unlikelihood that she or her mother has even heard of Vladimir Nabakov, let along read the book. Dora (Frances Conroy) is a Stepford wife with a stultifying dull husband in the prefabricated house business. Carmen (Jessica Lange) is in the business of, well, talking to people’s pets and finding out what they want. Penny (Tilda Swinton) lives on a far with a bunch of bikers and is none too happy to see Don on her doorstep.
The one common thread among all these women is that Don’s impact on their lives seems minimal at best. None of them are who they are because of him. He was just a quick pit stop on the road of life. Maybe this film is about a middle-aged man coming to grips with that fact, but by the end of the movie, I was left with the impression that the character would have been better off if he had never shown that letter to Winston. Maybe, as the quote above indicates, the film is about the pointlessness of dwelling on the past, but if that’s the case, frankly it was a roundabout and not terribly involving trip to that discovery.