IN THE OLD, politically incorrect days of the French New Wave, it was famously said that all you needed to make a movie were a girl and a camera. We can update that sentiment right now and trade "girl" for Bill Murray.
All you need is Murray and a camera, as Jim Jarmusch's enjoyable, relaxed "Broken Flowers" demonstrates. But there is more to the film, too. Call it the Jarmusch Thing. If I could define it, I would. It has something to do with a movie that's content to contemplate (with a sort of wry compassion) the quirks and rhythms of its characters, and let them do what they may. Let them do nothing. Let them sit. Somehow something will take place. Something funny and gently revealing.
In "Broken Flowers," Murray plays a single man named Don Johnston, who has had his colorful share of women. He frequently has to emphasize the "t" when he mentions his name, so people won't think of that other lothario from "Miami Vice." When we meet him, he is directionless and almost catatonically staring at his television. It just so happens that the movie playing is "Don Juan." His girlfriend of the moment (Julie Delpy) is leaving him without much explanation. For Don, well, there goes another one.
Then comes the letter in a pink envelope. It's typewritten by an unidentified old flame, apparently, who lets Don know that he is the father of her grown son. Don't be surprised if a 19-year-old suddenly looks you up, she says.
Don's first stop: his Jamaican neighbor Winston (a wonderfully amusing Jeffrey Wright), who considers himself an amateur sleuth. Winston concludes that Don needs to identify all the women who might be candidates and take the ultimate road trip of his life. Find the son. Find himself. Or something.
What's intriguing about "Broken Flowers" is that Don's soul takes a long time to get warmed up. He's reluctant to embark on this potentially traumatic adventure. Nonetheless he does, with the help of Winston's map, itinerary and a burned CD of tunes for driving entertainment. (Winston really gets involved in this. It consumes him.) For the rest of the movie, Don visits those former loves. And at Winston's urging, he keeps a lookout for signs of anything pink (maybe she likes that color) and a typewriter.
There's Laura Miller (Sharon Stone), whose teenage daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), thinks nothing of parading around the house naked. (Oh, now you're thinking of seeing the movie.) Then there's Dora (Frances Conroy), who has married a cheesy real estate salesman. They live in one of those creepy, lifeless, instant Beautiful Homes. She shows Don a photo of her in her hippie days. Don took the picture.
Don also visits Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), a pet clairvoyant of sorts who, uh, communicates with animals. What exactly is Carmen's relationship with the leggy assistant (Chloe Sevigny) in her office? And he has a rather difficult visit with Penny (Tilda Swinton), an edgy woman with a dangerous biker boyfriend.
This isn't going well. Don calls Winston to complain. He doesn't like the car Winston rented for him either.
"I'm a stalker in a Taurus," he moans.
Each encounter is a sort of postmodern, Odyssean test for Don. But it's done so delicately you hardly notice such a structure. Something is slowly happening to Don. We watch Murray's enigmatic expression, as if it were a sort of hangdog Mona Lisa, looking for clues to his moral growth. What's going on in there? His deadpan is the lure. And you can read into it what you will. Take this trip with him and chances are, you'll find the journey increasingly funny and touching.
BROKEN FLOWERS (R, 106 minutes) -- Contains nudity, sexual situations, obscenity and some violence. At Landmark Cinema's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema.