The bebop cadences of actor Bill Murray and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch are in such key-of-cool sync in the deadpan-tender who’s-your-daddy drama Broken Flowers, it’s a wonder that the two hipster silverheads haven’t jammed together more often. In Flowers, Murray plays Don Johnston, he of the slippery, almost-celebrity name, a low-affect commitmentphobe with a host of fed-up ex-girlfriends on his romantic résumé. As played by Murray with seemingly effortless stillness, Don gives off a hum of masculine self-containment that’s equally alluring and exasperating to women, and when first encountered, the determined bachelor has just been dumped by his latest had-it-up-to-here lover (Julie Delpy).
The only ”tell” that Don isn’t perfectly happy with his no-strings lot as a homeowner in AnyJarmuschTown, USA, is the obvious bang he gets out of visiting his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a family guy with a passel of kids. So when he receives an unsigned letter from an old flame informing him that he is the father of a 19-year-old son who may now be searching for his dad, Don consults with Winston, an amateur gumshoe who’d never be confused with Columbo, and takes his friend’s advice to travel the country calling on long-ago girlfriends who might fit the description of Anonymous Mom.
That’s the setup. The joy is in the journey, as this most reluctant of possible papas makes an all-American road trip around the country, dropping in on ladies who, in their profound differences one gal to the next, reflect different aspects of Don and Bill Murray and the America of quirk and querulousness that Jarmusch has loved so eccentrically, and so independently, since Stranger Than Paradise. You can’t get much more of a variety pack of mature sexuality than in Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton as Don’s exes, yet much of the warm cool of Broken Flowers comes from the director’s underplayed ability to find equal off-kilter loveliness in the blatant siren call of, say, Stone (with the actress having a whooping good time caricaturing her own famous brassiness) and the librarian-tigress secrets of Six Feet Under’s Conroy.
And with each, Murray adjusts his bearing with the tiniest of calibrations, obviously made comfortable by Jarmusch’s richly evident confidence in his own shaggy-dog storytelling. (The two had a previous salubrious working experience in the ”Delirium” segment of Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes in 2003.) It’s the rare former SNL comedian who can get ardently appreciative applause simply for the way he looks balefully at a plate of carrots, but at this high point in his acting career, following Lost in Translation and his work with Wes Anderson, Murray has boiled off all extraneous chaff in his representation of American men astonished to find themselves caring, about someone or something, when they least expect it.
It is perhaps not so surprising to find that Jarmusch cares too; most followers of the filmmaker’s well-established brand can easily identify the vein of gentleness that runs through even his most downtown-cynical of comic scenarios, however disguised by irony. But what is surprising is how Broken Flowers blossoms, as Don Johnston’s past meets up with his present, into a movie of uncommon sweetness and delight.