Normally, a review for a new Jim Jarmusch film would--appropriately enough--deal largely with Jarmusch. The eclectic filmmaker's movies are damn near events in the arthouse film world, and his latest, Broken Flowers, is no exception. But while Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes, Dead Man, Ghost Dog) is usually the focus of his films' buzz, that's not the case with Broken Flowers.
That's because Broken Flowers stars Bill Murray. Don't get me wrong: Broken Flowers is a Jarmusch movie, and his distinctive traits--languid pacing, a keen eye for character detail, off-putting humor--make Broken Flowers what it is. But Murray's presence means something more here--in the past few years, most notably with Wes Anderson's Rushmore and Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Murray's transformed himself from the likable and talented comedian of Caddyshack and Ghostbusters to a likeable and talented actor.
In Broken Flowers, Murray plays Don Johnston ("No," he says, often and resignedly. "Johnston. With a 'T.'"), a lonely, lazy, and rich man who receives an anonymous letter. Claiming to be from an old flame, it informs him he has a son he never knew of. The bewildered Johnston shows the letter to his mystery-obsessed neighbor (an excellent Jeffrey Wright), who convinces Johnston to go on a cross-country trip to discover who sent the letter.
In Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, and Lost in Translation, there was always an undercurrent of humor to Murray's characters, something that reminded the viewer of Carl Spackler's gopher-hunting in Caddyshack or Murray's Saturday Night Live sketches. Johnston, on the other hand, is rarely amused and never enthusiastic; with a deadpan face and a beaten-down shuffle, he searches desperately for a connection--even as he tries to convince himself he doesn't care about the outcome.
Along the way, Murray's biggest talent--simultaneously seeming like a total schlub and the coolest guy ever--meshes perfectly with Jarmusch's meditative style. By the film's end, Johnston's quest is secondary, pushed aside by the audience's simple act of knowing the utterly believable and sympathetic Johnston so disarmingly well. Everything else aside--from Jarmusch's talents to Murray's astounding transformation--that's a hell of a thing.