August 12, 2005

Broken Flowers

Directed by Jim Jarmusch Starring Bill Murray, Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Master of inconspicuous deadpan and cultural pastiche, Jim Jarmusch has unwaveringly redefined off-centre quirkiness in cinema throughout the past quarter of a century. Heavily influenced by Aki Kaurismäki, he is one of the few filmmakers capable of simultaneously summoning up opaque bleakness and eccentric glee. Like most of Jarmusch's work, Broken Flowers is an episodic road movie about displacement. It follows a past-his-prime lothario as he tracks down some old flames in the heartland of America to find out about a son he inadvertently fathered some years ago.

With this, the duly understated Bill Murray extends his recent streak of films about midlife longings. His sluggish Don Johnston is scarcely convincing as a chick magnet, especially considering that over the years the character has attracted the company of women played by Julie Delpy, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. Perfectly content vegging out on the couch all day, he is unexcited by the surprise arrival of an anonymous letter announcing his lost son. Only at the insistence of his detective-story enthusiast Jamaican neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright) does Don reluctantly begin his inquiry and the quest that follows.

Jarmusch's new work often evokes films by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, especially their masterpiece About Schmidt. The two films obviously share the thematic common threads of post-retirement void and self-discovering journey, even if the dialogue in Flowers isn't as pointedly witty and brutally revealing as the Ndugu letters (it's okay, neither is anything in Sideways). Jarmusch's film likewise cheerfully derides the oddity that is Americana: NASCAR, Lolita, a designer home, a professional closet organizer, a pet therapist and a biker gang. As with Schmidt, Flowers culminates in haunting poignancy with its protagonist finally resigning himself to his life's regrets.

If this latest effort signals any maturity in Jarmusch's work, it's only for the sheer fact that it deals with midlife crisis. And for this fact alone, the prevalent boomer sentimentality among the critical masses already portends the overrating of the film. The low-key cinematography of gloomy suburbia by the formidable Frederick Elmes still somewhat pales in comparison to Robby Müller's and Tom DiCillo's luminous black-and-white photography in their respective Jarmusch collaborations. Devoted fans will know that the director isn't reaching an artistic plateau with this Cannes Grand Prix winner, and in fact it is hardly his personal best, but Broken Flowers is certainly another extremely worthy addition to a wonderful body of work.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.