My Apologies to Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray—it’s not you, it’s me.
DIRECTOR: JIM JARMUSCH/2005
STREET DATE: MAY 7, 2019/KINO LORBER
What would you do if you received an anonymous letter announcing you had a 19-year-old son? If you were Don Johnston, you’d do nothing.
It’s not that Don (Bill Murray) is too busy to deal with this news. His former paramour (Julie Delpy) has left for good, and his former tech career still pays for his well-manicured house. If it weren’t for his detective novel-obsessed neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), he’d have ignored the type-written letter on the pink paper. Winston investigates and arranges a trip for Don to reconnect with his past lovers and discover who wrote the letter while Winston waits for the son’s arrival at home.
I’m going to say something you’re not supposed to say as film reviewer: I didn’t get this movie. This ties into a problem bigger than Broken Flowers: I don’t get Jim Jarmusch. Considering how many talented people continue to work with him and his respect within critical circles, I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t grasp the appeal. So far I’m chalking this up to an, “It’s not you, it’s me,” situation; otherwise, I can’t explain how this bummer of an evening for me won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Perhaps it’s because the opening held so much promise. Despite my past Jarmusch experiences both frustrating (Stranger Than Paradise) and meh (The Dead Don’t Die), the first twenty minutes of Broken Flowers grabbed me. Perhaps this would be the film to unlock this auteur! Wright was a quirky delight, and his family’s front yard covered in children’s toys was the perfect foil to Murray’s meticulous museum. And what a great idea for a movie! The premise sets up a character study, funny cameos, and a mystery, all with the added pressure of his son’s imminent arrival.
But as soon as Don Johnston takes his first flight, the momentum wanes. When he leaves Winston (the character driving decisions in this story), Don becomes so passive he’d be dull if he weren’t Bill Murray. While I chuckled at Lange’s career as an “animal communicator” and kept my eyes peeled for clues, Don seemed indifferent to all of it. In The Dead Don’t Die, I wished we could have watched Murray and Adam Driver riffing for two hours instead of meandering through a town of less interesting characters; here I wished the only character who pushed Don out of his routine would have stayed important to the story.
And here’s where it becomes difficult to discuss why this film let me down without spoiling the ending. (Spoilers ahead.) We never discover who wrote the letter or the son’s identity. That isn’t a dissatisfying ending in itself, but Don’s inscrutability is. What has he learned? How has the journey changed him? What will be different going forward? The script gives no clue, and we literally leave Don standing at a crossroads. It doesn’t feel like the story is over so much as the script is out of ideas. (Spoilers finished.)
Our experiences with each of his past girlfriends (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) turn out to be so thin we don’t gain much from his journey, either. What attracts them to Don? All are affected when he appears, and so is one of their daughters, an un-ironically-named Lolita (Alexis Dziena) whose nude appearance has aged ick-ily with #MeToo. Why does he pursue them? We see him look up and down almost every woman he meets. More than once, he objectifies them down to pairs of legs, and there’s no indication of any interest besides sex. My understanding of this loner is as clear at the end as at the beginning.
The special features of this Blu-ray include outtakes and a short featurette with Jarmusch musing on his storytelling philosophies. At one point, he says of his films, “It’s not my job to even know what they mean…my job is to make them, and an audience receiving them, their interpretation is way more valuable to me than my own.”
Maybe this featurette has unlocked this director for me. I like stories with a point of view, while Jarmusch prefers a more laissez-faire approach. I know this style speaks to many, including our own co-founder Jim Tudor, whose taste is excellent. To Jim Tudor I say, I’m sorry for the visible disappointment I caused when I shared my distaste for Stranger Than Paradise. To Jim Jarmusch I say, it’s not you, it’s me.