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Friday, May 12, 2006

No stopping this charming man

Broken Flowers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Bill Murray, sex god? The ultimate icon of indie movie cool? Who'd have thought it back in the 1970s, when he was playing a Conehead on "Saturday Night Live" and starring in B-movie comedies like "Meatballs"? But age has been kind to Murray, and he's cultivated a laid-back cool, a permanent Zen bemusement, that's served him well. Sure, Richard Bohringer had it first ("Diva," et al.), but Murray has parlayed it into his trademark style.

News photo
Bill Murray and Sharon Stone in "Broken Flowers"

Murray's career entered its second act with 1998's cult hit "Rushmore," and after the surprise success of "Lost in Translation" in 2003, he's become a leading man once again. And despite entering his jowly, graying 50s, he's been in roles seducing Scarlett Johansson, Cate Blanchett and -- in his latest -- Sharon Stone! If Leon magazine was looking for a new cover-boy, then Murray is the very definition of the moteru oyaji (a middle-aged ladykiller).

"Broken Flowers," directed by NYC indie auteur Jim Jarmusch, sees Murray playing a modern-day Don Juan named, ahem, Don Johnston (not to be confused with the "Miami Vice" star). The movie begins with Don's latest lover, Shelly (Julie Delpy), storming off in a huff. While she's fuming, Don seems strangely unruffled and chilled, and it can be surmised that is exactly what's bugging Shelly.

After she leaves, Don visits his cheeba-smoking Ethiopian neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), to commiserate. Don tells Winston that Shelly's gone, and he replies. "I'm sorry," to which Don adds, "I am too . . . I guess." It's the voice of a guy who's been down this road all-too-many times before, too numb -- or maybe just too cool -- to care all that much.

The next day he gets an anonymous letter from a former lover, informing him he has a son he didn't know about. The letter, written on shocking pink stationery, alerts Don that his son, now age 19, has left home to go looking for him. Don asks Winston for advice, and the gregarious Ethiopian gets more excited about it than Don.

"You have to treat this as a sign," says Winston, and he goes ahead and prepares a full itinerary for Don, sending him off to track down a bunch of former girlfriends. Winston even provides maps, airline tickets, and a burned CD of killer Ethiopian jazz-funk by Mulatu Astatke, which becomes the soundtrack for Don's journey.

This is all awfully familiar to anyone who's seen last year's "Elizabethtown," but where Orlando Bloom's road-trip was a maudlin epilogue to that film, Jarmusch deploys it as the main course here. It allows him to shape the film around a series of short vignettes, a strategy that's served him well in past films like "Mystery Train" or "Night on Earth." Each episode is framed by a plane taking off, a car driving down some roads, and a map showing the course.

Don arrives at the homes of each of his former flames bearing pink flowers -- a subliminal hint of the pink letter -- and a look that's somewhere between anticipation and apprehension, though Murray remains poker-faced enough to make us guess which. Actually, it's the moments that force a reaction out of Murray that give the film its laughs. When the ripe teenage daughter of one ex -- named Lolita, no less -- suddenly strides into the room buck naked, the look of acute discomfort that flashes across Murray's face is priceless.

Of course, he can play it the other way too: When visiting Carmen (Jessica Lange), an "animal communicator" who provides counseling sessions for pets and their owners, Murray has a scene with a cat who, Carmen tells him, has a problem with him. Jarmusch conventionally cuts between close-ups of the cat and Murray's reaction; the joke comes from how expressive the cat is compared to Murray.

This is the sort of deadpan comedy that Jarmusch has always favored, and you either get it or you don't. Some have called "Broken Flowers" his most accessible film yet, but despite its Hollywood cast, the humor here is as minimalist and full of pregnant pauses as his very first feature, "Stranger Than Paradise." With Murray, Jarmusch may have found the best vehicle for this sort of Zen schtick since John Lurie in "Stranger" and "Down By Law."

As he visits his former lovers -- professional "closet arranger" Laura (Stone), ex-hippie turned yuppie real-estate agent Dora (Frances Conroy), pet therapist and lesbian Carmen (Lange), and redneck biker chick Penny (Tilda Swinton) -- Don becomes increasingly frustrated as he fails to learn anything about his mystery son, and ends up back home right where he started. Jarmusch tacks on an epilogue, though, that again brings to mind "Stranger Than Paradise": Don has a missed connection with a kid (Mark Webber) who might be his son, but despite this, it's clear that Don has moved from total detachment to caring about something again.

"Broken Flowers" is one of a string of recent films -- "Hidden," "A History of Violence," "Where the Truth Lies" -- to suggest that the past has a way of creeping up and biting you on the ass when you least expect it. Unlike those other films, though, "Broken Flowers" suggests there's no point in fighting it. Just sit back, throw on that Ethiopian funk, and let it roll on by.

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