The art of deadpan requires commitment, magnetism, and a magical ability to make something out of what appears to be nothing. Director Jim Jarmusch has built his entire career on this skill, presenting strange behavior with a rock-solid imperturbability. Bill Murray has aged into a second coming of "The Great Stone Face," gradually draining the manic energy of his mainstream performances and settling in with independent-minded filmmakers who'll allow him to noose the pooch all day long. The locus of Jarmusch and Murray, realized in the dry comedy Broken Flowers, was inevitable. It's not the heat that'll get you; it's the aridity.
"Dear Don: Sometimes life brings some strange surprises." So begins a mysterious, pink-enveloped letter dropped through the mail slot of one Don Johnston (Murray). The anonymous writer identifies herself as an old girlfriend from twenty years hence, and she has a warning. She claims to have secretly borne Don a son, who is now scouring the country for his father. Within seconds of the letter's arrival, Don's current girlfriend (Julie Delpy) is out the door for good, saying, "I don't think I want to be with an over-the-hill Don Juan any more." In the same scene, a couch-squatting Don watches 1934's The Private Life of Don Juan ("I had no idea my own funeral could be so delightful!").
It's Jarmusch's way to beat humor out of repetition, and soon enough, Don's neighbor and only apparent friend is also calling his buddy "Don Juan" (in another running joke, new acquaintances do double-takes at the name "Don Johnston"—with weary resignation, Don says, "Johnston: with a 't'"). The neighbor, an armchair detective named Winston (Jeffrey Wright, typically marvelous), convinces Don to hit the road to visit the only possible suspects among his former girlfriends. "Only you can solve the mystery," Winston insists. "Because you understand women." Armed, by Winston, with a Mapquest-stuffed dossier and a "traveling music" mix-CD of Ethiopian jazz, Don reluctantly takes a nostalgic journey by plane and rental car.
Johnston visits four former flames (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, and Tilda Swinton). All five people (and perhaps the elusive son, if he exists) could be described as broken flowers, poisoned by disappointment and time. To say more about the women would be to give up what little substance there is to the wispy narrative. Suffice it to say that Don's encounters are awkward, threatening, sentimental, and melancholy. "This whole thing is a farce, a fiasco," Don complains, and he's finally facing his karmic payback in the form of harsh truths about himself and the world he's made (in his private hell, he has to wonder every time he sees a young man who could be 19).
Jarmusch's even pacing and ambiguity save him from intellectual depth. Broken Flowers has little more ambition than to make Murray the funny valentine of one of Jarmusch's mood pieces. Along the way, the director revels in every quirky detail of art direction in his dimly lit America; indeed, some of the best moments are wordless. One blue-tinted shot depicts Don looking through the window of a hotel room and the traffic below; we only see him from behind, but we can tell he's haggard, and we have a pretty good idea what he's thinking. With scenes like this, for better and worse, Broken Flowers fills out a double "Bill" with Lost in Translation.
Though writer-director Jarmusch (inspired by an idea from Bill Raden and Sara Driver) gives featured roles to fine actresses over 40, their short-film appearances play like curt opportunities for a couple of jokes, which is a shame. Instead, Broken Flowers is about the journey of Bill Murray through Jarmusch's Zen universe of slow rhythms, funky music, and strange sights to a philosophic final destination that looks a lot like the starting point. "So all there is is this," Don concludes, and his small awakening—which he feels compelled to share—means the world to him. By then, even the most bored audience member may be praying for Broken Flowers not to end, which is a pretty good trick.