Jim Jarmusch purists -- those who feel his work has never been as good since "Down by Law" and "Stranger Than Paradise" -- will be heartened by the consummate indie auteur's return to form with "Broken Flowers," which marks a homecoming of sorts to Jarmusch's signature deadpan, discursive style.
Nothing much happens in "Broken Flowers," but that seems beside the point in a film that maintains a stubborn, sardonic commitment to the indeterminacy of life. ("Broken Flowers" is dedicated to the late French director Jean Eustache, whose 1973 New Wave epic "The Mother and the Whore" held to many of the same structural tenets.) Catharsis, closure, some kind of satisfying moral -- Jarmusch presumably considers these merely teleological fictions, narrative crutches that get in the way of the far more compelling stuff of watching characters drift through landscapes that serve as visual metaphors for their sense of existential absurdity. To live, Jarmusch seems to conclude from a philosophical perch somewhere between the Lower East Side and the Left Bank, is to shrug.
In any other hands, such musings might be gratingly pretentious and, more to the point, boring. But as he proved with those early 1980s films -- and with such later gems as "Mystery Train," "Dead Man" and "Ghost Dog" -- Jarmusch is a filmmaker so firmly in control of the medium, as both a writer and a director, that he manages to imbue banality with surprising beauty and humor. And in "Broken Flowers," he has enlisted the perfect accomplice with Bill Murray, whose unfazed, quietly bemused persona impeccably suits Jarmusch's own poker-faced restraint.
Here, Murray plays a career bachelor named Don Johnston, who, as the movie opens, is saying goodbye to the latest in a long string of girlfriends (her name is Sherry, and she's played by the lovely French actress Julie Delpy). As she's leaving, saying something about not wanting to spend the rest of her life with "an over-the-hill Don Juan," Don opens a letter, typewritten on pink stationery, informing him that he has a 19-year-old son who may soon show up on his doorstep. The letter is unsigned, which tweaks the interest of Don's best friend and next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who happens to be an amateur sleuth.
Winston sends Don on a cross-country trip to track down the ex-girlfriend who might have written the letter, providing him with maps, plane tickets and a list of four women. (The trip is a major undertaking for Don, who has gone into early retirement since making a fortune in computers.) Or at least, we think it's cross-country; "Broken Flowers" takes Don to such nondescript places -- generic shore towns, McMansion developments, New Age enclaves and impoverished farms -- that soon viewers look for clues with the same furtive compulsion as Don scans his former lovers' homes for pink writing paper and typewriters. (As stingy as Jarmusch can be with obvious meanings and emotional arcs, he can run some of his references into the ground, whether it's the Don Juan theme or a musical riff on "Song for My Father.")
In the course of encounters that run from an overnight stay to the angry slam of a door, Don gleans enough information to tell him what he needs to know; the audience, on the other hand, never really learns what happened in any of his relationships or how the reunions affect him. Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton deliver wonderfully nuanced and potent performances in what are essentially little one-act plays; their immediate reactions to seeing Don after so many years -- whether it's with warmth, wistfulness or rage -- provide the strongest clues to his cipherlike character. (Lange and Swinton are particularly memorable in their portrayals of a soft but steely "animal communicator" and a bitter biker chick, respectively.)
The fact that Don remains inscrutable almost until the very last moment keeps "Broken Flowers" from being a warm-and-fuzzy crowd-pleaser; it's too emotionally chilly for that. Indeed, it takes someone with Murray's reservoir of audience goodwill to make such a maddeningly passive character even worth watching. (His charisma made a similar difference in his mordant performances in "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation.") Worth watching, that is, but not entirely sympathetic: When Don -- who has seemed so remote throughout his low-key picaresque -- delivers his ultimate soliloquy, the moment is an anticlimax.
But, as the playfully inconclusive ending of "Broken Flowers" suggests, that's entirely the point -- that there is no point. Or is there? For viewers who don't necessarily demand immediate answers to such questions, and who are perfectly content to watch as Murray and Jarmusch nimbly dodge pat answers, "Broken Flowers" delivers a welcome cinematic shrug.
Broken Flowers (105 minutes, at Landmark Bethesda Row and Landmark E Street, is rated R for language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use.