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Sad journey of a dour Don Juan

Bill Murray's aging cad has trouble crossing the ironic distance kept up in 'Broken Flowers.'

August 05, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

The legend of Don Juan has been kicking around since 1630, when Spanish dramatist and monk Tirso de Molina wrote a play about a heartless libertine who seduces the daughter of a nobleman, then kills her father. The villain of the story, and an atheist to boot, Don Juan invites the statue of the dead man to dinner. Wouldn't you know, the statue turns up and escorts Don Juan to hell.

Since then, Don Juan has popped up all over the place, modified to suit the artistic, philosophical and religious mood of the time. He's been, among other things, a lazy nobleman to Moliere; a parody of a romantic hero to Byron; and a caped nutball to Johnny Depp.

Now, to Jim Jarmusch, in his new film "Broken Flowers," he's Bill Murray: A dour, lonely and strangely listless suburbanite who spends his days sitting on his shrink-wrapped sofa, watching old Don Juan movies on TV.

His name, naturally, is Don Johnston, and it makes young women giggle anachronistically, the thought of this glum old dude one letter away from sharing a name with the guy from "Miami Vice." Instead of descending into hell, Don embarks on a road trip through his romantic past, which pretty much turns out to be the same thing.

Ever since Sofia Coppola cast him as the alienated movie star in "Lost in Translation," Murray has been exploring his regret-in-autumn side to touching, tragicomic effect. And at first glance he appears to be perfect for a story about a lifelong bachelor forced to confront his past. But Jarmusch's arch, detached style, which keeps an ironic distance at all times, seems more suited to stories about disaffected hipsters than to an actor like Murray, who is too old, too experienced and too smart to plod through a movie in a catatonic haze.

When Don's latest girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) walks out on him early in the movie, calling him "an over-the-hill Don Juan," the comparison seems intended ironically: If Don Juan has a contemporary incarnation, Don Johnston is not it. A retired computer mogul, he lives more like a retired mail carrier who just won the lotto. Forget seducing people; he hardly looks capable of calling anyone up.

This may have been what Jarmusch was after -- a contemporary reassessment of the self-centered American commit-phobe as doomed and soulless. Don is neither dashing, adventurous, philosophical nor naive. And for all the play of emotion that Murray's deadpan face allows, he remains frustratingly blank as a character, because none of the people around him care to draw him out. So what was he? Without a sense of the guy he was, or the life he led, or even the stories of what happened to his relationships -- none of which are supplied -- it's hard to fully empathize with Don's season of remorse.

It's the big problem with "Broken Flowers," and one I don't think the movie -- for all of its funny and occasionally poignant touches -- ever really transcends. It's too cold and too uninterested in talk in general and the stories people tell themselves about their romantic lives in particular to do its premise justice. Murray was perfectly convincing as a playboy in "The Life Aquatic" and as a romantic in "Lost in Translation." But here, the camera stares at him grimly from across the room. He looks uncomfortable and reveals nothing. It's as if "Broken Flowers" were angling to be the repressed man's "Sherman's March." Instead of obsessive, neurotic introspection, we get Bill Murray in a Taurus, looking pained.

Tonally, the movie is a return to early Jarmusch films like "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down by Law" and "Mystery Train," in which it takes an enthusiastic foreigner with a love of American culture to show the passive, disaffected native that there is something like meaning or transcendence in the vast emptiness that surrounds him. In "Stranger Than Paradise," the foreigner was Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), come to inhabit the bluesy American world of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. In "Down by Law" it was Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who had read all of the great American writers ("in Italian translation, of course"), down to the famous "Bob" Frost. In "Broken Flowers," it's Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don's Ethiopian neighbor, a self-styled Sam Spade with a large, boisterous family and an abiding love for detective fiction.

On the morning of Sherry's departure, Don receives an anonymous letter in a pink envelope, informing him of the existence of a 19-year-old son he didn't know he had. Winston takes the faded postmark and lack of return address as a chance to apply his sleuthing skills, and after obtaining a list of the women Don dated 20 years earlier, he books the trip and sends Don out on a hunt for clues, reminding him always to bring flowers.

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