Hippo Manchester
September 8, 2005

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Broken Flowers (R)
by Amy Diaz

Bill Murray pretty much smacks the Academy around and demands an Oscar in Broken Flowers, the tale of a bachelor in search of clues about the existence of the 19-year-old son who he’s never met.

In Broken Flowers, Murray offers yet more proof that he is a master at subtle, nuanced acting. He is able to give his characters an interior life that we don’t totally know but get some sense of in looks and gestures (which themselves are slight and hint at more than they directly show).

So, seriously, an Oscar already? Would it be so hard?

Not that Bill Murray probably expects one — he seems resigned to be one of a group of actors who win mountains of praise but no formal Academy recognition. Such resignation is right at home with his latest character Don Johnston.

Yes, with a “t.” And, unlike the neon-colored 1980s star of similar sounding name, this Don is a gray lump of immobility. He sits on his sofa watching with only the vaguest interest as his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delphy) leaves him. His response is to go to sleep. His solitary funk is interrupted only by Winston (Jeffrey Wright) his next door neighbor. Father of what feels like dozens of children, husband to a beautiful wife and industrious employee at three jobs, Winston’s favorite pastime is mysteries. Thus he is delighted when an unsigned, typewritten letter on pink paper shows up at Don’s house to announce the existence of a son. The boy, now 19, might be searching for his father, the letter tells Don. Perplexed by the letter, Don seems happy to answer it by doing nothing. But Winston, sniffing the paper, examining the postmark under a magnifying glass, is excited to search for clues. He asks Don for a list of girlfriends from the time and creates an elaborate trip wherein Don will visit each of them, even the one who is dead, and search for evidence of a son.

With each living ex-girlfriend — Laura (Sharon Stone), Dora (Frances Conroy), Carmen (Jessica Lange) and Penny (Tilda Swanson) — Don finds some clues (pink things, a typewriter, hints of children not on the premises) and a variety of reactions to his appearances. One offers dinner and some post-post-breakup sex (not to mention the spectacle of her aptly named daughter Lolita). On the other end of the spectrum, another refuses to let him in to her house and calls over a man who punches Don in the face. Through it all, Don seems far more mystified by what these women have become (and perhaps who they were when they dated him) than by their possible status of mother to his child.

Broken Flowers is, in some senses, an instrumental movie. Dialogue is sparse, plot development is as frustrating incremental and undefinitive as actual life development is. As Don says in what may be his biggest chunk of dialogue in the film, “the past it gone … the future’s not here yet.” So, he says, all we have is right now. But, as with actual life, “right now” is seldom filled with high drama or big moments. Instead, it’s layers of information, most of which we will never know, surrounded by swirls of emotion, half of which we don’t understand.

Clever but not showy about it, entertaining but not high energy, Broken Flowers is as cool and intoxicating as the Ethiopian jazz that scores much of the film.