There’s a certain kind of man arrogant enough to believe he’s God’s gift to women, and as he leaves a trail of ex-girlfriends behind he has the self-satisfaction of knowing he’s touched their lives. Even as they get on with life without him (if they have indeed gotten on with their lives), he smugly imagines they’ll never find anyone as great as him. Memories are collected like so many mantel trophies, and locked away for safekeeping. That empty vision of life has finally caught up with Don Johnston (Bill Murray), an aging Don Juan and self-made man. His latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy), half his age, marches out the door complaining that she’s more like a mistress to him than a girlfriend—and he’s not even married. Sitting on his overstuffed couch in his oversized house, Don is left to wonder what it’s all about.
These idle thoughts grow into serious self-reflection when Don receives an anonymous letter from a former lover, typewritten on pink paper, informing him that he has a son who may be searching for him. Prodded on by his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, Don searches out four of his ex-lovers ostensibly to track down which is the mysterious woman behind the letter. But as much as Don denies having any interest in this road trip (to himself as much as Winston), there’s an inherent curiosity in seeing what became of one’s former lovers. How’d they get on without him?
That’s the danger of living in the past. Memories are vague and untrustworthy. And director Jim Jarmusch, himself approaching middle age, has Don looking back with Zen fortitude and deadpan sobriety. What’s missing from Broken Flowers, though, is sensitivity. Bill Murray is all wry detachment as Don, barely giving out any energy and enthusiasm—to the point where one wonders what it is he’s got that struck these women’s fancies in the first place. Unless we project the varied, melodious career of Bill Murray or Jim Jarmusch onto him, Don is less an aging Don Juan than a melancholy cipher. It’s actually a relief whenever Jeffrey Wright shows up, a schemer and a family man with a taste for Ethiopian music and indelible mysteries—there’s a sense of life’s bounty in Wright’s eyes that’s missing from Murray, whose performance is a mixed paint of gray and beige.
One could argue Don has lost sight of that bounty somewhere along the way, and the canny audience member will be doing some detective work of their own imagining Don’s relationships with former hippie turned real estate housewife Dora (Frances Conroy), embittered trailer chick Penny (Tilda Swinton), animal therapist Carmen (Jessica Lange, fiercely committed to acting with a capital A), and Laura, who is played by a surprising Sharon Stone, whose worn-out good looks seem to improve her acting—she’s got aspects of a survivor about her. Too bad she’s playing the caricature of a sexy older flame with a hot-to-trot daughter named Lolita (Alexis Dziena).
All the women, in fact, are types. Even as the casting goes against convention, Don and Jarmusch never look past the clichés of these roles sufficiently. This decidedly individualistic filmmaker had an entire movie to deconstruct the western genre in his masterpiece Dead Man, and continually shook up the so-called rules in his arsenal of earlier films like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. Those movies felt like mixtapes made by your philosophical friend from downtown, offering culture and big ideas with humor and droll wit, often in ways you didn’t expect. The mixtape this time (aside from the terrific Ethiopian music CD Winston provides Don for the road) is composed of the women of Don’s life. They’re cover songs of clichés, yet the cover song rides so close to cliché that Jarmusch’s vision comes up short—almost gently mocking the girls when, if anything, he could mock Don’s trip to self-realization. If you’ve fucked them and chucked them, and then mosey on back to visit them, you deserve to be mocked.
Something else is missing, though—and it’s a crucial point. Did Don Johnston love any of these women? It’s implied that there was one who touched him deeply, though that scene is so cloaked in mystery and pathos it’s impossible to tell whether Don is mourning one woman, many women, or his own pathetic life. While Jarmusch’s commitment to not tying up his narrative in ribbons and bows, concluding on a note of striking ambivalence, he’s also providing a glimpse into his philosophy of life. We live in the present, that’s true. We can never take back the past, and we have an uncertain future. But Don’s journey down memory lane doesn’t provoke a desire to live for the moment, because what’s missing from Broken Flowers is the offering of life. Maybe Don’s soul hasn’t been busted open yet—though the final spinning shot around a passive Bill Murray implies he may be on his way. As for all the girls he’s loved before, they deserve to be far more interesting than Don is (or Jarmusch makes them). After all, they aren’t just the product of his fantasies, are they?