The other thing that the bastard child of MTV, the modern world, has taught us is that everything has to be explained, including how we're supposed to respond to the explanation. So when a movie bucks the trends toward speed and stupidification (it's a word; look it up), I tend to give that movie both the benefit of the doubt and my undying love.
Jim Jarmusch has always been in the "slow and cool" school of filmmaking, and so I've found most of his films charming. His latest, Broken Flowers, is no exception, though it does have a tremendously boring beginning that had me clinging desperately to consciousness.
Once it gets rolling, though, it settles into a beautiful slowness and sly weirdness that would have made this a masterpiece, if not for two enormous flaws: the aforementioned opening, which doesn't seem to know what it's about, and some uninteresting and rather unattractive camera work.
It begins with Bill Murray as Don Johnston, a former software exec and current layabout millionaire, getting dumped by his much-younger girlfriend (Julie Delpy). Simultaneously, he receives an anonymous letter saying that he has a 20-year-old son who is now looking for him.
Johnston's neighbor (Jeffrey Wright) is an amateur Sherlock Holmes who subjects the letter to a series of tests, and then decides that Murray must find out which of his many, many, many ex-girlfriends sent it. After narrowing the list down to the four women he was seeing 20 years and nine months earlier, Murray's character goes on a cross-country quest to visit each of these former love-buddies. It's a dopey, tremendously artificial setup, but in spite of that, it lacks believability.
The problem is that in the opening sequences, it seems as if Murray has no idea who his character is. He's not only blank; he's void. It's hard to buy him as an erstwhile Casanova, or as much of anything. Nonetheless, as the film progresses, his blankness of expression deepens into a real character, and the dialogue, pacing and scenarios improve until Broken Flowers becomes painfully compelling.
It doesn't hurt that the four ex-girlfriends are played by (in order of appearance) Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. But it's not just the caliber of the actresses that makes these sequences work. Rather, Jarmusch captures something about the strangeness of seeing someone you'd planned on never seeing again.
These sequences, and the extremely well-executed ending (Murray gets in an escape pod, but one of the aliens is in there!), more than make up for the weak beginning. Jarmusch makes excellent use of the writer/director position by writing dialogue that could only be spoken in one way, and then teasing perfect performances out of his actors. Plus, the dialogue is distinct and distinctly played in each scene, so there's a real feel for different characters. Sharon Stone, for example, is easygoing and speaks in a fluid, informal manner, whereas Frances Conroy is stiff and evasive.
In fact, her whole sequence is great, and that is the point where the movie kicks into high gear. Or maybe into really low gear, with lots of power and torque and not much interest in speed. Conroy, her new husband (Christopher McDonald) and Murray all sit down for a dinner of sterile-looking foodstuffs and the most stilted conversation ever. There's a good five-second pause between each sentence and an oppressive air that's enhanced by the lack of a soundtrack or any sort of room tone.
Jarmusch continues with the painfully sharp dialogue and weird sense of disconnect in the next two sequences, one featuring a lesbian pet psychic and the other a motorcycle chick and her tooth-free boyfriend. But the best part is the end, when Murray returns to his home to take stock of what's happened. It left me wanting more, which was a surprise after the opening left me wanting to leave the theater.
The only other downside is the look of the film, which has a sort of washed-out, video-esque quality that detracts from the otherwise enjoyable slowness. The shots are reasonably well-framed, and Murray's face is always interesting to look at, but the film's look lacks the extreme beauty of earlier Jarmusch works like Dead Man and Stranger Than Paradise. Still, in spite of its flaws, this is a film worth seeing. Just buckle your seat belt and wait for the rocky beginning to pass, and you'll be rewarded with that rarest of cinematic treats: a movie that assumes you're not an idiot.