In criticism, as in life itself, sometimes a slightly detached perspective is preferable to an immediate knee-jerk reaction. That’s certainly the case with regards to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, a road-trippin’ saga charting an aging lothario’s reunion with past lovers that initially struck me as a wee bit lethargic but which – after spending time reflecting on the pensive film’s nuanced portrait of yearning and regret – now strikes me as a small gem about people’s inherent, inescapable, and sometimes painful need for human connection. A Don Juan mired in a midlife crisis, sad sack Don (Bill Murray), after being dumped by his most recent paramour (Julie Delpy), receives a mysterious letter that informs him of a heretofore-unknown 19-year old son who, the missive indicates, may be in search of his father. At the urging of his mystery novel-loving amateur sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don embarks on a preemptive search for his offspring via a multi-state visit to four former flames, carrying with him pink flowers (the color of the letter’s stationary), trepidation over reopening old wounds, and a fear that his love-‘em-and-leave-him life will be revealed as having been an empty, meaningless waste.
As with many of Jarmusch’s films (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law), Broken Flowers’ cross-country narrative has a loose, ambulatory ambiance that perfectly matches the casual, slackerish charm of its protagonist (as well as Winton’s jazzy-funk burned CDs). And Murray – subtly using his creased, sorrowful face to express a highway mile-long range of depressive emotions – is near-brilliant as the lovelorn Don, instilling the character not only with a droll sarcasm (“That was quite a lovely outfit you weren’t wearing earlier” he dryly tells a young, nude Lolita) but also a bone-deep misery wrought from the dawning realization that his life has been merely a series of lost opportunities. Murray has always been a master of the deadpan, capable of eliciting both humor and pathos from his staid, bemused countenance, and through simple eye movements (during an awkward dinner in an antiseptic pre-fab home’s dining room) or in extended silences (such as when confronted by his alternately loving, flummoxed, and angry exes), the actor not only wrings hilarity from misery, but also skillfully captures his melancholic Romeo’s physical, emotional, and psychological dislocation.
From the bouncy opening montage of the letter’s postal journey (from mailbox through sorting machinery through ground and air transport to Don’s doorstep) to Don’s comfortably cantankerous rapport with Winton and his liaisons with various girlfriends-gone-by (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and a stunningly volatile Tilda Swinton), Jarmusch’s film exhibits a confident delicacy and palpable, mature sadness. And while the director’s dream sequences lack a requisite sense of either heart-pounding panic or overwhelming glumness, and though the film sometimes veers into cutesy obviousness – such as having Don watch Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Don Juan on TV while morosely slouching sideways on the couch – Broken Flowers for the most part maintains an exquisitely sardonic, somber wistfulness. “All there is is this. The present,” is what Don eventually understands at trip’s conclusion, but the misery seen in his eyes during the film’s final moments speaks volumes about the inexorable lesson learned throughout his odyssey: that, no matter what, no one ever gets the opportunity to relive the past.