The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Broken Flowers

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article In this time when many small, character-driven, ‘quirky’ Hollywood films are released each year to the sound of happy critics’ pens scribbling away, it seems a good time to take stock of Jarmusch, the man who more or less started the trend.

At my screening of Broken Flowers I heard a man behind me answer his girlfriend’s question of “So, who is Jim Jarmusch?” with, “I’m not sure. I think he’s basically a director with a bunch of cool friends.” Now, this audience member isn’t necessarily representative of most people’s opinion, but he made me think. In 2005, is that who Jarmusch is - a guy with cool friends? Not the man who pretty much single-handedly started the US independent film scene as we know it? Not a filmmaker with his own distinctive style, themes and take on America?

Since his breakthrough feature Stranger Than Paradise (1984), which proved to be a model for the small-budget-large-profit film that defined much American independent cinema in the 80s and 90s, Jarmusch has been associated with being very, very cool. Cool characters with perfectly poised boredom, cool actors with links to cool music, their cool soundtracks, cool stories with no plot, cool film style with no camera movement. Not that his is your usual, obvious sort of cool of course: its casual, offbeat, slightly sad, nature is the very reason that it is quite as cool as it is. This has always been part of his films and career.

If he is uncomfortable with this image he hasn’t done himself any favours: side-projects he’s involved himself with, such as Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) and the transcendent Fishing With John, as well as the cast-lists for some of his narratives, essentially come across as Who’s Hip line-calls from the worlds of alternative film and music. Then again, if you were friends with Tom Waits, how could you not ask him to do the soundtrack to your film? If you knew John Lurie, wouldn’t you agree to be in his absurdist fishing TV show? And, if they had the chance, anyone in their right mind would put Bill Murray in a scene with the Wu-Tang Clan.

Yet one feels when watching Broken Flowers, a film made approximately 20 years after the filmmaker broke onto the scene, that Jarmusch is feeling a certain yearning to be something more than cool. The story concerns an ageing star, Don Jonston - a guy who once had the moves, the looks, the style - who finds out that he may be a father, and is thus forced to reassess his detached non-existence, potentially in order to emerge as a more full person in the process. If this were a Tom Cruise film, there would be nothing surprising whatsoever about this plot. As it is - this being Jarmusch’s world - we are suddenly in uncharted territory.

Right down to the exquisite title, everything about this film exudes an air of lost beauty, lost youth, lost cool. Murray has never looked closer to being an old man (this being his most recent film, Murray has never been closer to being an old man), each one of Don’s exes whom he visits has the autumnal beauty of a former prom queen, Sharon Stone appears wearing lines and wrinkles never seen before, and most touchingly, Don’s neighbour Winston is unmistakably a once-hip guy who’s reigned-in his cool for his loving wife and family.

Don is fighting a losing battle with the world in an attempt to remain cool (in both senses of the word: stylistically and emotionally) in the face of marching time and life’s responsibilities. He makes his road trip around America trapped inside a car that is less classy than the one he would like. He is, however, able to listen to the specially made compilation CD Winston has made him, which manages to give his journey a sheen of hipness, even if in actuality it is anything but. Yet even here, there’s something so down-to-earth and mundane about the cool music actually coming from a compilation CD with permanent marker scrawled on it. Compared with Eva in Stranger Than Paradise innocently listening to her Screaming Jay Hawkins on an oversized retro boombox, or the Waits growl that floats in and out of Night on Earth’s scenes, Don’s soundtrack appears really rather constructed and self-conscious - sweetly, sadly, so.

Not only does the music in these driving portions colour Don’s road-trip, it also gives the film itself one of its main links with the sense of cool so familiar in Jarmusch’s worlds, and therefore forms part of the struggle going on inside the very fabric of the film - exactly the same struggle plaguing Don: essentially, to be or not to be cool? The tension of the film is that it feels like it is being pulled in two distinct ways: Jarmusch’s laid-back stasis on the one hand vs. Hollywood’s plotting on the other. It’s as if the pink letter that informs Don of his fatherhood is sent directly from a Hollywood studio in an attempt to make a linear emotional arc out of Don’s/Jarmusch’s potentially rambling and detached life.

Most representative of these opposing directions in which the film could go is Bill Murray himself. Though he is a Hollywood star if ever there was one, Murray has in fact managed to go the length of his successful career without ever playing a character with the full emotional investment usual in the industry’s fictions. Even in his most conventional leading roles, there is always an ironic distance, always a cynical edge to his performance (see, for an example, the end of Groundhog Day [1992]: “We’ll rent to start…”). He is thus potentially a bridge between the world of Hollywood and - particularly after Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) - the world of Jarmusch, and it is in him that much of the film’s struggle is played out.

Murray is a superb comic actor with an acute sense of comic timing and an unbeatable deadpan face. What he isn’t - for me - is someone you put in your film if you want an emotionally resonant central performance. This is for the very simple reason that, due to his huge and largely unwavering persona, it is almost impossible for him to make you forget that he is Bill Murray. Unlike the musicians Jarmusch has cast - whose personality cults, as Alternate Takes writer Tom Steward has said in his piece on the director, never quite unbalance their films - Murray’s persona is a hard one for a film to convincingly overcome. Even in Rushmore (1998), or in Lost in Translation (2003), the roles in which he has come closest to a truth that stands apart from his famous, cynical public self, his performances never finally fully moved me.

In Broken Flowers, however, he did - in spite of a number of moments when I felt the danger of his stock character outweighing the unfolding story. It happened particularly in two scenes: one is the magnificent, subtle, odd, terrifying piece of vintage Jarmusch when Don walks to the open window of his depressing, sterile motel room. We stay behind his back for one long take as he shuffles forward and looks out over a busy, loud, rain-swept motorway, dimly illuminated by grey half-light. This thirty-odd seconds of nothing - a roaring, horrifying nothing that Don feels is about to swallow him - is an incredible moment that deserves a whole essay dedicated to it alone. Suffice to say, it makes you remember that there are many ways to elicit empathy in your audience, and that, while Jarmusch might have been uninterested in hysterical emotional outbursts, he was always able to squeeze effortless poignancy from silence.

The other, though, is the later scene when Don sits and quietly weeps by the grave of a former lover. In a Hollywood cynic-embraces-life story, this is the Big Scene - the one in which our hero finally realises that he cannot go through life as he has been, and that he can indeed feel deeply. Murray cries incredibly well here, and although his characters have always tended to have a depressive edge to them - it is a touching and cathartic shock to actually see tears come from those eyes.

Both Murray and Jarmusch here are giving us something they have not before: they are playing the Hollywood tearjerker game, and you can’t help but be moved by it. These two old cool cynics giving in and crying along with the Hollywood myth of the cold-fish-warms-up hits home much more fully than any Cruise film that does the same. Unlike Cruise, who has spent 20 years learning his lesson then forgetting it for his next film, one feels that Jarmusch and Murray truly have been building towards this moment their whole careers - careers which have touched on emotion with a hesitant outstretched hand but never fully given in to it - and that they deserve, need, a good cry.

This Alternate Take was published on September 01, 2005.

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