Lost in transition
Bill Murray fills the space between, beautifully, in exquisite 'Flowers'
(Correction: Because of an editing error, the theaters listed in Friday's review of ''Broken Flowers" were incorrect. It is playing at Harvard Square, Cambridge, and Coolidge Corner, Brookline.)
Anyone rushing to ''Broken Flowers" expecting trace elements of the old Bill Murray -- the loose-jawed reprobate of ''Stripes" and ''Groundhog Day" -- needs to be warned right now. The new Jim Jarmusch film is an altogether different animal: a minimalist miracle that transcends comedy and drama to wind up in a bigger and wiser place. It's very much the movie ''About Schmidt" should have been, and it's one of the best films of the year.
That said, if the contemplative drift of ''Lost in Translation" didn't do it for you, you might want to stay home this time. A Jarmusch movie in word, deed, and spirit, ''Broken Flowers" is exhilaratingly slow, which for many will simply mean slow. Enough air flows through the open spaces of this film to prompt either self-examination or the shredding of multiplex armrests. Those who can downshift appropriately, however, stand to be enraptured.
At this point in his career, Murray has pared his shtick to such levels of refinement that he can paralyze an audience merely by lifting an eyebrow. His character, an aging lothario named Don Johnston, doesn't have the energy to do much more than that, even when confronted with a enthusiastically naked teenage girl in a strange living room. Don was expecting her mother, who may or may not also be the mother of his son.
How did we get here? Don is wondering the same thing. When we first meet the onetime Don Juan (the film's sole misstep is to lean too hard on that metaphor), his party-boy days are well in the past. He has made a bundle in computer software somewhere along the line, but we're never given the specifics, and there's a chance the whole thing may have been a lucky fluke. His latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), has left him because he spends his days immobilized on the couch watching classic movies. Don has nothing left to prove and no interest in proving it. He wears a track suit but we never see him running. He has simply stopped.
He isn't even galvanized by the appearance of an unsigned letter (red typewriter ribbon on pink stationery) from one of his exes, claiming that his unknown son is now 20 and coming to look for dad. Don's neighbor, Winston, on the other hand, is tickled to death, and Jeffrey Wright (''Angels in America") walks off with his scenes as the nosy and bubbling family man with an active Sherlock Holmes complex. Winston borrows Don's black book, Googles the ex-flames in contention, arranges hotel and airfare, and just about shoves the hero out the door.
I could tell you what Don finds in his travels across America and his errant past, but I won't; so much of the pleasure in ''Broken Flowers" comes from being as surprised as he is when the doors pop open. The women are as varied as an ex-lover might hope and fear, and they're played with nuances of regret, relief, anger, contentment, and dismissiveness by a superb gallery of actresses (look at the cast list above if you must know). All right, I will say that Tilda Swinton, magnificent and almost unrecognizable, plays a black hole of fury who almost pulls the movie inside out on her own.
Most of the women have moved on, while Don has hardly moved at all. Like ''Lost in Translation," ''Broken Flowers" captures the rootlessness of modern travel -- the airport waiting areas and motel rooms that all look the same -- and suggests, very faintly, that if we don't make our own homes, in people's hearts and elsewhere, this is all we'll get. At the same time, Jarmusch loves these arid consumer landscapes (they're the backdrop to everything from 1983's ''Stranger Than Paradise" to last year's omnibus ''Coffee and Cigarettes") and finds a strange sort of Zen solace in their emptiness.
I don't drop that reference lightly. Jarmusch's ''Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999) cast Forest Whitaker as an enlightened warrior-gangster let loose in Tony Soprano-land, and ''Broken Flowers" increasingly takes on the packed profundity of a Zen aphorism. The ending, which is also too good to spoil, will probably frustrate literal-minded audiences, but it's the only one possible, and Jarmusch and Murray pitch it with true, mind-rocking grace.
If you're able to appreciate comedy delivered with the least amount of gestures, ''Broken Flowers" is also very, very funny. Murray atones for the overindulgent ''The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" with a supremely watchful performance that earns laughs by letting us imagine what Don is thinking (that's how well we know Murray by now); seeing Wright bounce off the star like a Jack Russell terrier off the side of a Great Dane is a particular joy. Murray's comic timing is so adroit that he can deepen it into sorrow without strain, as in a suddenly moving late-inning encounter with a flower-shop employee (played by a young actress named Pell James, whose incandescence is the point).
There's a word in Tibetan Buddhism, ''bardo," that translates as ''a space between," an intermediate phase between one life and the next -- an island that's not one place or another. Jarmusch's hero has lived there most of his life. In ''Broken Flowers," he starts the process of rowing home, only to wonder if home even exists.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.