- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

“Broken Flowers,” another exercise in starvation comedy from Jim Jarmusch, might be usefully likened to wilted flowers.

As the hard-to-redeem protagonist, an inert and sketchily defined computer entrepreneur named Don Johnston, Bill Murray suggests a man who has allowed his life to wilt. Supposedly, it occurred while he was acquiring a dubious reputation as a Don Juan. (To underline the phantom affinity, he is seen watching a telecast of the Douglas Fairbanks film “The Private Life of Don Juan.”)

The plot is contrived to send Mr. Murray’s middle-aged sad sack on a wild goose chase to look up four discarded consorts played by, in order, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. Don J. suspects that one of them — or a fifth old flame, now deceased — may have sent him an anonymous letter that claims that he fathered a long-lost son, now in his teens. The arrival of the letter coincides with the departure of another girlfriend, played by Julie Delpy, whose walkout suggests a recurring pattern in the Johnston love life.

Jeffrey Wright plays a cheerful and well-adjusted neighbor, a family man named Winston who thrives on five children, three jobs and a hobbyist passion for solving mysteries. Encouraged by Winston, a life-affirming rebuke to Don’s affluent inertia, our anti-hero settles on his top-five list of old girlfriends and hits the road.

Mr. Jarmusch has never been a humorist in whom the life force is abundantly, infectiously evident. A bohemian cool customer, he prefers a droll, muted presentation that is often perilously monotonous. A number of scenes in “Broken Flowers” threaten to freeze into still imagery. It’s almost as if Mr. Jarmusch is loathe to whisper “Action” when on the set.

The fact that he’s been fond of the road-movie format since his 1984 debut feature, “Stranger Than Paradise,” underlines the facetious eccentricity of his style; being on the move doesn’t really suit the Jarmusch outlook or tempo, both of which favor the pokey and static.

It’s possible that Don Johnston is a Jarmusch self-portrait; the resemblances might seem amusing if one knew the prototype. But as a practical matter, it feels merely perverse and sluggish to cast a familiar comedian as a protagonist so phlegmatic that he barely energizes the story.

The first stopover is the most diverting, since Sharon Stone proves an affectionate hostess, rivaled by Alexis Dziena in a career-making appearance as her blooming, flirty teenage daughter, Lolita, who treats Don to a naked eyeful just to be provocative.

The prospects grow bleak at the subsequent destinations, and stale notes of snobbery intrude. It’s a little too easy to mock Miss Stone and Miss Dziena as small-town tramps. Miss Conroy, a Realtor, is encased in an uptight stupor. Miss Lange is dismissed as a late-onset lesbian. Miss Swinton, made up to resemble a haggard Lesley Ann Warren, projects total hostility as a biker moll. Moreover, the camera is far from flattering to anyone of middle age.

It’s anyone’s guess what Don might have done to seduce and fail these women. No one has been blithely talkative in a Jim Jarmusch comedy since Roberto Benigni rescued “Down by Law” in 1986.

It’s one of Mr. Jarmusch’s mirthless jests to deny a satisfying payoff, so even the mystery of the anonymous letter is a bust. Jarmusch survivors should see the letdowns coming. He sort of specializes in letdowns. You anticipate episodes deflating long before he reaches their conclusions. Bill Murray gets an incongruous oration about living fully in the present; it’s bound to ring hollow in a movie where absence and immobility are overdrawn.

*1/2

TITLE: “Broken Flowers”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, nudity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Cinematography by Frederick Elmes. Production design by Mark Friedberg. Costume design by John Dunn. Music by Mulatu Astatke.

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

WEB SITE: www.brokenflowersmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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