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For Love or Money

by Shari L. Rosenblum

It begins with an ending and an echo. The aging Douglas Fairbanks as the aging Don Juan flickers on the big screen t.v. in the darkened living room of the aging Don Johnston (Bill Murray). A woman in a pink suit (Julie Delpy), with bags packed, is walking out on him, asking him rhetorically if he truly believes he'll never want children. A pink envelope we've seen dropped in a mail box drops in through the slot in his door; red ink on pink paper announcing anonymously that the son he never knew he had has set out to find him. Hat and pink bouquets in hand, with a list of old lovers and mapquest directions, he sets out simultaneously to find the boy's mother. Such is the substance of Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers : a sly and sardonic series of reflective images, resounding forward and back along literal roads not taken.

Indifference seems to define  Murray 's thinning-haired, timeworn ex playboy; Don Johnston barely reacts to the loss of a lover, the discovery of a child. The actor's still-faced persona contains the kernel of a life resigned. But there is something that almost jumps in his inertia. Propelled forward by his neighbor and friend in contrast - an enthusiastic Jeffrey Wright as Winston, would-be detective, he forges ahead to his past. Twenty years back, to all the girls he loved before. To Laura (Sharon Stone) and Dora ( Frances Conroy), Carmen (Jessica Lange) and Penny (Tilda Swinton). And Michelle.

("It was badly edited," a woman leaving the theater behind me told her friend; "too much focus on the road where nothing happens. Too many shots of him lying on some bed.") They call it a minimalist aesthetic, Jarmusch's way of using so little to say so much, Murray 's low-key expressiveness. But the hipster pairing of the deadpan director and the laconic lothario veritably brims with possibility. The life that happens in the quiet moments, or that doesn't. The passage of time is handled with slight subtleties - how long it takes for each of the women to recognize their old beau in the older man, the way they revert to his more youthful self: Donny. The way he softens at life's unkindness to them, rich or poor. The way they tremble with lost vigor, lost youth, lost contentment.

Some reviewers have remarked upon the women's evidence of years: botox and bad surgery, and there is in this a hint of Alexander Payne-like meanness. But Jarmusch and Don Johnston let that pass, giving in to the nagging, sagging reminder of their own reflection in the women's eyes--gentle mirrors cracked, faded, dissipated, throwing back at the man they used to know the glimmer of days gone by, still beautiful in that right light. "She'd look awful in daylight," Leporello warns Don Juan in Fairbanks ' swansong film. "Well, who wants to see her by daylight?," answers the rake. Don Johnston does. By the shift of his brow or the lowering of his glance, the something of substance in the women's discomfit, you can see at each awkwardly opened door that there was once love there, that it lingers still in its way. Each of the actresses in her turn gives flesh to the caricature she might have been - and Murray in his easiness allows them each their full range: Laura overcast by her daughter, Dora encased in pearly middle class, Carmen who doesn't drink or eat, and Penny still fuming.

("It wasn't meant to be funny," the woman behind me went on. She had an accent; spoke determinedly. "It wasn't mean to have humor." She was wrong). Broken Flowers is a comic gem. Understated, but unmistakable from that certain perspective, with its unending Don Juan and Don Johnson allusions (and the allusions that reside in the allusions themselves), the multiplying pinkness of girls and of women - so innocent, so insistently not: a robe, a business card, a typewriter, a nubile nymphette named Lolita (Alexis Dziena), who offers a popsicle in various states of undress, a territorial receptionist (Chloë Sevigny) casually stroking her own bare legs.

There is no actor better suited than Murray for conveying with a clarity that rings still as imperceptible life's emotional upheavals -- sweetness and joy and ineffable sadness -- and no director better suited than Jarmusch to capture that on the screen. The offbeat anarchist and restrained ironist of Murray 's earlier roles has not been bypassed here, as some argue; he's just gone deeper inside. But if you bend in more closely, you can hear the faint whisper of an earlier Murray incarnation in the film's subdued silences: "It just doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter." Until it begins to. To matter, that is. And the comedic gives way to the poignant. Weaves itself through the wakening regrets. The wistful revisioning. And we begin to notice that each woman is treated to a different arrangement of blossoms, and the flowers, evocative in the reference alone, become meaningful in their selection. And the title starts to resonate with its multiple significances. And every basketball hoop in every backyard, and every young man unconnected becomes both the shadow and the projection of Don Johnston, as he himself becomes the cartoon of a man watching, waiting for the stork to drop in a package, not of the long-sought pink this time, but of belated baby blue.

©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum
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