Broken Flowers initially seems like it’s a mystery film. It will trick some viewers and then disappoint them by not providing answers. The film is not about the central mystery; it is simply a plot device used in order to both frame a journey and get its lead character off the couch and out into the world. Still, if you’re someone who is angered by a lack of resolution, you likely won’t like Broken Flowers. If you don’t mind ambiguity in your movies, carry on.
Bill Murray is the lead, playing an “over-the-hill Don Juan,” the cleverly named Don Johnston. The “t” in his last name is important, and is a running gag, if you can call it a “gag.” Don is a character who made a lot of money in computers in his younger days and now sits on his couch and listens to opera to pass the time. His girlfriend leaves him in the film’s first scene, although he dispassionately accepts this development. Don receives a note in the mail telling him that he has a 19-year-old son, and that this son is trying to find him. The note is unsigned and has no return address.
Don’s only friend is his neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Writght), who happens to like detective novels. Winston asks Don to make a list of the woman he was with 20 years ago, so that they might be able to figure out who wrote the note. There’s our mystery hook. Don is about to go on a cross-country road trip to meet with four women he used to be involved with in an attempt to figure out who wrote the note and whether or not he truly has fathered a son.
But none of that is the point. The film is a journey down memory lane, one which its protagonist doesn’t want to take. There are four women, and while I won’t bore you with their names, professions, marital statuses, or any such material, I will say that they are played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. The film provides cameos and paychecks to each of them. I think the longest any of them is on the screen is three scenes, yet their presence is welcome and provides a nice counter to Bill Murray.
Yes, Bill Murray, the charming man whose passive, lackadaisical attitude continues to be watchable simply because it’s Bill Murray doing it. Coming from almost anyone else, this acting style would be annoying. But it’s Bill Murray, so it kind of works. There’s a certain charm to him. He’s laid-back and in this sort of role, it works well, especially because of all the competing personalities that surround him. They come at such a quick rate, too, that the understated stability of the Murray character is actually beneficial.
It also allows for the more touching, human moments to come through so much stronger. You see a bit of vulnerability in the character and it hits harder because for most of the time, Don is the person who would sit in the corner and not say anything to anyone for fear of having to hear his own voice. The film makes you wonder how exactly he became known for being a “Don Juan” type of character in the first place. There is no mention or hint that he’s changed in all of these years.
There’s not much flair to the proceedings or the storytelling. The only true stylistic device used by director Jim Jarmusch is that each scene ends by fading out. Some amount of time then passes between the time one scene ends and another begins; we rarely, if ever, transition straight from one scene to the next. This allows the film to clock in at a nice, concise 106 minutes. six of those minutes probably could have been cut, almost all of which come from scenes of Bill Murray driving a car.
But the film is never boring and works as a great character study and moderately successful comedy. Most of the humor is of the deadpan variety. You have to think a little to “get” many of the jokes, but they are there and they are often quite funny, if you like that sort of thing. And as a film about a man on a journey to rediscover a regretful past he’d rather leave behind? It’s very good at that. Sure, it’s not the most complicated movie, but simplicity can be a powerful tool and it’s used to great effect here.
Assuming you are okay with a simple movie that doesn’t wrap everything up for you in a nice little bow, Broken Flowers is a pretty great movie. It works as a character study, it has moderate success as a comedy, and its joys lie in the scene-to-scene moments rather than the destination. This isn’t a film where you sit back hoping for twists and turns; you want to see the main character interact with past girlfriends and see what comes from those conversations. It’s well worth watching and I recommend doing so.