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A journey without an ending


Jim Jarmusch's highly praised new movie, Broken Flowers, demonstrates his gradual climb from a postion as one of the darlings of the art houses to something approaching the status of a tolerated if not an entirely mainstream filmmaker.

Just before the release of the film the New York Times Magazine devoted several pages to him in one of their familiar puff pieces, a rather slicker and more elaborate form of advertising than appears on the entertainment pages. The cast of the new flick, which includes a number of well known names, provides perhaps the most telling proof of his ascent --- a certain kind of artsy and intellectual reputation often attracts highly paid Hollywood actors to low-budget indies.

The action of Broken Flowers depends on the kind of artifice that propels numerous narratives in literature and cinema, with the difference that the writer-director mostly ignores the possibility of a strong plot, preferring instead an accumulation of several oddly static episodes to structure the action. Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, an aging Don Juan, as everyone points out, whose latest girlfriend leaves him at the beginning of the movie, sinking him into a state of lethargic melancholy, interrupted by a mysterious letter from an anonymous lover of 20 years ago telling him that they have a child, a young man now in search of his father.

Comically bullied by his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who fancies himself an amateur detective, Murray somewhat reluctantly embarks on a series of trips to see four different women to find out which of them bore his son. The picture then settles into a generally comic series of meetings with those women, identified and located by Winston, in which Murray looks for clues to the identity of his correspondent and attempts to raise some discreet questions about birth and paternity. Given the intervening years, both the women and Murray have changed a good deal, and their situations make those questions tentative, difficult, and sometimes quite funny.

The women, played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, naturally dwell in different circumstances and receive his visits with a variety of reactions. The recently widowed Stone and her precociously sexy daughter, too appropriately named Lolita, provide the warmest and most generous welcome, which even includes a night in bed with Stone.

Formerly an ethereal flower child, Conroy now sells real estate with her Babbitt of a husband and appears vague and tranquilized; Lange makes big bucks as an "animal communicator" and tells him her cat believes he comes with his "own agenda." Swinton, who lives in a rural slum, attempts to attack him, a job finished off by her biker husband, who knocks Murray unconscious.

Despite the differences in reactions and circumstances and the progress of the journey itself, Broken Flowers devolves into a single static situation. No matter the destination, all the plane rides, all the roads, all the motels look very much alike, so that Murray's attempt to seek out his old flames and find his purported son becomes more an expedition into his own history, an interior journey. His several dreams, which rehash the recent past, mixing memory and desire, intensify the notion of a man standing still and gazing into himself rather than traveling beyond his starting point.

The different women Murray encounters enliven the repetitive action, but the star himself constitutes the biggest single problem in Broken Flowers. For inexplicable reasons, he started to build something of a serious reputation with a completely perfunctory performance in the unspeakably wretched Rushmore, which somehow gave him the license to continue his stylized and increasingly tiresome deadpan manner.

Nothing about him in Broken Flowers, including the background references to opera and film, justifies the reiterated description of him as a Don Juan. Neither handsome nor graceful nor charming, he turns in what must be the most steadfastly dull and passive performance in recent film history. He never changes his facial expression, he almost never injects a scintilla of emotion into his words, he rarely even contributes the sort of offhand, arrhythmic dialogue that make his previous, fully comic parts so entertaining.

His absolute disengagement from the film and his complete lack of affect, however, may qualify him for the just the sort of emotional distance that characterizes Jarmusch's work --- bad as he is, perhaps Jarmusch finds him perfect.

Broken Flowers (R), written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, is playing at Little Theatres and Pittsford Plaza Cinema.