Comparing Jim Jarmusch’ Broken Flowers to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is, I suppose, inevitable: both pictures boast a subtler-than-usual Bill Murray in a starring role, both directors utilize long takes to enhance the audience’s discomfort during expressive moments, and both films focus on emotional emptiness despite the characters’ apparently happy exteriors. Indeed, there are numerous similarities…but while Lost in Translation follows two protagonists—similar despite hailing from wildly different generations—and is as much about connection as anything, Broken Flowers is all about one man: Don (Murray), a middle-aged womanizer of sorts who fears commitment, yet lives in denial about his hollow lifestyle. Despite being wealthy due to capitalizing on the computer boom, it’s immediately evident that money really can’t buy happiness. His elegant house features a flat-panel TV and flashy furniture, but the absence of a computer is conspicuous: Don unconsciously resents what made him rich, and that it didn’t cure him of his woes. He’s content to pass out on the couch while Don Juan plays in the background (one of Jarmusch’ many artistic references, and a clever parallel to Don’s name), and barely reacts when Sherry (a woefully underused Julie Delpy; okay, that’s just my Before Sunrise infatuation talking) gives up and reluctantly leaves him. However, after a mysterious letter from a former lover arrives at his door—anonymously claiming that Don’s a father, and his son is currently on a quest to find his dad—Don embarks on a road trip of his own (with lots of prodding from his friend Winston, played by a hammy Jeffrey Wright) to track down the potential suspects, and winds up on a spiritual journey of self-examination.
The four women whom Don finds may have all moved on to new lives, but all seem equally unhappy in their own ways. Laura (Sharon Stone) lost her husband in a race-car accident, and now lives in a shithole as a wannabe entrepreneur, with her slutty daughter Lolita (a clever play on names). Dora (Frances Conroy) made a fortune in real estate, but her marriage (to her business partner, though they married before choosing a joint career path) is a loveless one, and an awkward silence at their dinner table is actually difficult to watch. Carmen (Jessica Lange) appears the most stable of the bunch…and this is the woman who abandoned a profitable career as an attorney to speak to animals. Meanwhile, Penny (Tilda Swinton) is trailer trash, and unlike the rest, makes no bones about it—or her lingering disdain for Don. As Don sifts through the memories, he begins to realize why Winston pushed him to go on this wild goose chase—even though he’s no closer to discovering if he really is a father, he’s much closer to discovering himself. His exes react to him in different ways—sexual, indifference, scorn, loathing—but they all distinctly remember him, and he them. Perhaps his life could have been different had he not treated them like short-term entertainment; perhaps theirs could be as well. Broken Flowers superbly captures the inner torment that plagues rich loners, and the regret that tortures almost all of humanity. Jarmusch’ patient camera sometimes lingers too long, taking the audience out of the flow, but mostly effectively mimics and enhances the uncomfortable atmosphere so prevalent throughout the movie. The script is full of witty dialogue and some great laughs (Murray’s deadpan delivery boosts every zinger a few notches), though it must be said that the writing does feel contrived at times. I’m not sure if Broken Flowers is a memorable or great picture, but it’s insightful, entertaining, and a worthy addition to the filmography of one of America’s more interesting modern directors.