Broken Flowers (2005): Jarmusch Romantic Comedy, Starring Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray

Cannes Film Fest 2005–Jim Jarmusch, one of America’s most maverick and quintessentially independent filmmakers, goes the mainstream route with his latest picture, “Broken Flowers,” a romantic comedy that represents a departure and a step in the direction of appealing to larger audiences after a decade of mostly esoteric films (“Dead Man,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” “Coffee and Cigarettes”).

Working with a bigger budget and with a name cast, that includes Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, and Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, Jarmusch has made a low-key, moderately charming film about a contemporary Don Juan, who embarks on a journey into his past that reunites him with his former flames.

The film represents the second collaboration between Jarmusch and Bill Murray, who appeared in the segment “Delirium” in “Coffee and Cigarettes.” At the top of his form on the heels of his great Oscar-nominated performance in “Lost in Translation,” Murray plays Don Johnston, a fortysomething Don Juan who has devoted his life, as he says, to “computers and women.” Dominating the film with a role that makes good use of his mischievous and melancholy qualities, Murray provides the glue to a movie whose structure is necessarily fractured and episodic.

While the acting is good, and the tone is mostly right, the film offers a rather shallow look at midlife crisis. Furthermore, it suffers from a narrow conceptualization and repetition. Not only is Murray’s acting (too) minimalist, but for a good deal of time, he’s seen driving from one destination to the next one. “Broken Flowers” is one of Jarmusch’s simplest works, a high-concept film with a straightforward plot that lacks depth and subtlety in both its characterizations and meanings.

In the very first scene, the resolutely single Don is dumped by Sherry (Julie Delpy), his latest, much younger lover. Sherry sees no future in their relationship and no prospect for family life. “You’ll never change,” she says before leaving, signaling that the ensuing story will be about crisis and change.

Resigning himself to being alone and again left to his own devices, Don spends his time in his lush home, watching TV and staring at the walls, in scenes that recall the hilarious beginning of Jarmusch’s striking debut, “Stranger Than Paradise.” In fact, Don may be the bourgeois counterpart to the hip East Village denizen John Lurie played in that 1984 film. We get the impression that Don has gone through this experience too many times before to get really upset, or to lose his coolness. (Can anyone really upset Bill Murray). While Don seems to be a man cognizant of his limitations, he has not entirely accepted their consequences.

A mysterious pink letter, which unexpectedly arrives at his door, prompts Don to reflect on his past. Typed on pink paper by an anonymous former lover, the letter informs him that he has a 19-year-old son, who may be looking for his birth father. Puzzled but not yet disturbed, he keeps looking at the letter without taking any action.

Things change when his closest friend and next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), urges him to investigate this “mystery.” A family man happily married to a lovely wife and father of five, Winston is an amateur sleuth. Before long, Winston urges Don to compile a list of all his former girlfriends so that he can investigate their current addresses and whereabouts.

At first, Don is reluctant to pursue what he sees as a preposterous, if not absurd, plan. But secretly and quietly, he follows orders and comes up with a list of five previous lovers. Winston delivers his promise and the next days presents him not only with up-to-date info about each woman, but also with a strategic plan that includes flights, rental cars, and motels to facilitate his journey. Hesitant to travel at all, Don nonetheless embarks on a cross-country trek in search of clues as to which one of the women is the mother of his son. The list gets narrowed down to four, when Winston discovers that one of his lovers had died in a car accident.

The aforementioned setup occurs in the first reel, after which the tale becomes a rather schematic road movie, with four stops along the way, each more or less occupying the same running time. A serio comedy “Broken Flowers” is a male menopause film, structured as a journey that enables Don to reestablish contacts with his past and give an account to himself of his life so far.

Though the film is playful and intermittently entertaining, it lacks depth and deep insights; at the end, it’s not clear whether Don had learned anything from his trip, which may be Jarmusch’s droll meaning.

As written ad directed by Jarmusch, “Broken Flowers” comes across as an impersonal film, one that doesn’t reveal any new or shattering insights about Don. Indeed, we don’t learn much about Don’s inner world, and at the end of the saga, Don he remains more or less the same enigma that he was when the saga began. In paying unannounced visits to each of his four flames, we expect the trip to hold new surprises for Don as he haphazardly confronts his past and his present. But most of the surprises are in discovering the identities of his women and the varied milieus in which they now live.

Each of the four lovers is unique and eccentric in her own way, engaged in an unusual profession or living a lifestyle that’s foreign to Don’s. Hence, Sharon Stone is a professional closet organizer, who pays attention to color coordination, and Jessica Lange is a lawyer who became an animal communicator, blessed with special skills of listening to the ways animals think.

The actresses who play the lovers are terrific. Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton are just as eccentric and diverse in their acting styles as the characters they play. Indeed, even the most seemingly plain actress, Frances Conroy, who plays a real estate agent, turns out toe be non-conventional in the way she decorates her house, prepare her favorite foods, and communicate with her real estate husband.

It may be silly to apply realistic yardsticks to such a light whimsical tale, but the fact that all the addresses are correct and that Don finds each woman at home or at work (as if they’re waiting for his arrival) gives the impression of a calculated and diagrammatic picture that lacks freshness and spontaneity.

The degree of success of such an odyssey movie rests on the nature of the four encounters (five, if you count the tribute paid by Don pays to his dead girlfriend at the cemetery). Fortunately, each of the stops is colorful and idiosyncratic enough to camouflage the film’s overly deliberate and rigid structure.

First stop introduces Sharon Stone as a young widow, raising a sexy daughter, Lolita, who parades in underwear (and even nude) in front of Don. Emotionally, it’s the least abrasive stop for Don and also the most enjoyable, ending with the two old lovers in bed. In contrast, the least successful is the last one, in which Tilda Swinton (unrecognizable with long black hair and heavy makeup) turns up as a hippie living in the woods with a bunch of motorcycled punks. This one ends with Don being beaten.

Segments with Jessica Lange, as a New Age animal therapist, is the strongest due to Lange’s fabulous performance. Lange is able to nail the role in just one scene.

Though they are very different films, “Broken Flowers” recalls the seminal docu, “Sherman’s March” (this one could have been called “Don’s March), in which the filmmaker used his camera as a tool in seducing women while embarking on a Southern journey along the lines of the notorious general.

“Broken Flowers” is dedicated to the memory of the late French filmmaker, Jean Eustache, who made only a few films, and is best known for “The Mother and the Whore,” considered to be his masterpiece. Stylistically, Jarmusch’s film is vastly different, though, thematically, there’s slight resemblance since both works deal with what Jarmusch describes as “male/female miscommunication.”

In focusing on the idea of an absent father-missing son relationship, Jarmusch is joining many other young independent filmmakers, who seem to be preoccupied with this Freudian notion, evident in all the films of Wes Andersons (“The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Life Aquatic”) and most recently in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 Sundance entry, “The Squid and the Wheal.”

Light, smooth, and well crafted, “Broken Flowers” is an enjoyable film that should attract new recruits to Jarmusch’s work. However, since the main character and his girlfriends are middle-aged, this is a romantic comedy that naturally would appeal to older audiences. What worked in favor of “Lost in Translation,” which also starred Murray at its most minimalist, and was also released by Focus Features, was the intergenerational plot, the fact that Murray was attracted to a girl half his age (played by Scarlett Johansson).

For years, critics have complained that Jarmusch is making highly personal films disregarding audience and market considerations. “Broken Flowers” may be his response to those critics and an attempt to broaden his base. The verdict is out there to what extent Focus Features will be successful in doing for Jarmusch what they had successfully done for Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” both of which became breakthrough movies.