With Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch at last embraced soulfulness and blatant traditional narrative without rendering "traditional narrative" in quotes. Unfortunately, Dog now looks like a one-off career aberration: Jarmusch's Broken Flowers is a disappointing return to his usual brand of hep-cat ambivalence. As the no-wave New Yorker has done so often before, he makes a road story by linking a thumbnail collection of American second-act skits this time spearheaded by Bill Murray, pimping his Lost in Translation midlife hangdog anti-charm. While not Jarmusch's most self-immersed, audience-excluding effort (that would be Night on Earth), Broken Flowers is at best mildly diverting, in the way a glimpse of a possibly interesting TV show might be while you're on the nod.
That's actually how Jarmusch introduces graying womanizer Don Johnston (Murray): watching The Private Life of Don Juan on TV after being dumped by his latest fling, Sherry (Julie Delpy). Don's a 50-something guy who made a mint on computers and is now (for reasons never addressed) in a permanent bad mood. Matching the Don Juan telecast with deadpan atmospherics and an endlessly repeated joke about a certain ex-Miami Vice star's name all in the movie's first few minutes Jarmusch is already working overtime to establish an ironic distance from his own protagonist. Why? Well, it must have sounded like a good idea at the time.
After Don receives a letter from an anonymous ex claiming a son he sired is looking for him, his next-door neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), becomes obsessed with helping Don learn the boy's (and the mother's) identity. Don greets Winston's imprecations with vague indifference, escalating to distantly annoyed apathy when Winston locates four of Don's five biggest-deal exes one is dead; oh, well and assembles an itinerary, complete with plane tickets and car rentals. Mapquest printouts in hand, Don sets out on revisiting his Lothario past while Jarmusch neutralizes almost all sentiment or explanation and inflicts a ruthless formalism on the remainder of his movie.
The visit to each ex is introduced by a long shot of Don's flight taking off and a closeup of his CD player pumping out an Afrobeat tune. Medium shots frame the given ex as she gives Don a quick update on her life, and Jarmusch allows Murray approximately three emotional centimeters in which to react.
First in line is white-trashy Laura (Sharon Stone), who has a nubile, nymphomaniacal teen daughter (Alexis Dziena) named wait for it Lolita. Laura and Don appear to like each other, so they have sex, and then Don leaves. Theirs is the movie's most complex relationship.
A visit to a gated community yields hippie-turned-real-estate agent Dora (Frances Conroy, whose casting suggests a reclamation of the deadpan comedy style co-opted by Six Feet Under). Also briefly visited are trial lawyer-turned-"animal communicator" Carmen (Jessica Lange) and finally, perhaps crucially gothy biker Penny (Tilda Swinton), who might have something to do with Don's discovery of what's bothering him. But Jarmusch isn't one to commit.
What's the emotional through-line that attracted Don to this impressive distaff array? What is it about Don that is so irresistible to women? Why is Don so glum? No answers here: Jarmusch also doesn't do "what" or "why," which allows him the lazy luxury of not filling in anything about his characters.
Meanwhile, a numbed, exhausting rigidity which could be read as an echo of whatever's bugging Don for reasons that are clearly none of our business infects the whole movie. Even Jarmusch's shout-out to his in-crowd base feels obligatory. (Don reaches a fork in the road extending to two streets: Prong and Danzig.) Amid so much cool equivocating, a refreshing blast of metal noise from either would have been welcomed, but Jarmusch prefers bracketing Broken Flowers with Holly Golightly's blasé retro lounge act.
Once you realize that Jarmusch is only offering a shallow gallery of types, it's a letdown when the potentially interesting notion that a higher agency however random is informing Don's quest is raised and then forgotten. It's just another riff. As for Murray's already-overpraised turn as a walking coma, really, it's much the same as the earlier, funnier Murray, but with less of the funny. The actor almost pulls a big-ass rabbit out of the hat with Don's 11th-hour bout of recognizable human emotion, but the preceding hour-plus of arch snarkiness creates a rickety armature for self-realization.
Ghost Dog and its aesthetic opposite, the brilliant existentialist Western Dead Man, both showed that Jarmusch can go to fascinating extremes while indulging his usual interests. Murray, meanwhile, found the tragedy bone in his career-long smirk in Rushmore. Broken Flowers shows both talents stuck in a holding pattern. For audiences looking for nothing more demanding than Translation's empty, boutique ennui, it'll work just fine. But the combination of Murray and Jarmusch promises something far more potent than the cool vagaries and artistic dilution on display here.