Considering that Jim Jarmusch's last film, "Coffee and Cigarettes," consisted of 11 vignettes starring an array of actors and musicians musing on a variety of subjects from fame to science, his latest picture, "Broken Flowers," is indeed markedly more mainstream. However, it is far from the typical Hollywood fare, despite starring Bill Murray. In other words, the film will still disappoint those looking for fast-paced storytelling or unambiguous endings.
Thankfully, for all its quirks and small-film feeling, "Broken Flowers" is still one of the most engaging films of the year. Plus, it has a premise simple enough for an infant to follow. Murray plays Don Johnston, who is teased for his name, similar to both the classical lover and that cheesy actor from the '80s. Don receives an anonymous letter from a former lover who claims to have had his son some 19 years ago. Although Johnston is not particularly moved one way or another regarding the letter, his amateur sleuth of a neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) implores him to investigate the matter further.
From there the film gains steam as Don sets off on a mission to revisit four past flames in search of the answer. Comedy and humiliation ensue as Don's trip takes him from the weird to the awkward with each encounter providing varying degrees of laughter, tension and disbelief.
Don's first visit is Laura (Sharon Stone), who lives in a cheekily kitschy abode with her flirtatious daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena). The scenes between Don and Lolita provide some hearty comic moments as she mimics her famous namesake.
Don's second visit provides more of a balance between the humorous and the uncomfortable as he shares an excruciatingly funny and awkward dinner with ex-flame Dora (Frances Conroy) and her salesman husband Ron (Christopher McDonald). With just the slightest facial gestures, Murray manages to turn even the simplest of actions, like eating a forkful of carrots, into something far funnier than it should be.
Acting turns out to be the strength of "Broken Flowers," with an ensemble cast that all deliver memorable performances. Murray continues to perfectly develop the wry and cleverly deadpan older character that he has fostered through films like "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation." He makes Don into a fuller character by relying more on facial expressions and less on dialogue, making him a man as amused as he is haunted by his Casanova past.
Wright is also wonderful as Winston, Don's harmless and inquisitive next-door neighbor. Wright brings childlike gusto to Winston, who seems to take immense pleasure in investigating Don's past love-life. All of Don's ex-lovers are wonderfully portrayed, with Jessica Lange (as Carmen) and Tilda Swinton (as Penny) rounding out the cast of jilted lovers.
As good as "Broken Flowers" is, it still suffers on occasion from the willful lack of information that afflicts some independent features. While Don's past is intentionally obscure, certain knowledge would help to further develop the character. This is no knock against Murray, who manages to extract every bit of grief and humor from Don's unclear past. The film also begins a bit slowly, taking a casual crawl toward Don's road trip. This is not a particularly bad thing as it gives Wright more screen time, though it does prolong the necessary introduction into the real meat of the film.
Criticism aside, "Broken Flowers" is still a wonderful film, and by the year's end it will likely hold its own among the best of the best thanks to Murray's immense talent and Jarmusch's knack for storytelling. Those who come seeking all the answers, including a concrete ending, may be left feeling a bit cheated. However, expecting an explicit conclusion would be like expecting Don to settle down - romantic, but unrealistic.