Victoria Segal - Something missing

Film - The master of deadpan goes on a tortuous journey to nowhere, writes Victoria Segal

Broke

It has been claimed that Broken Flowers marks director Jim Jarmusch's ascent - or descent, depending on the cut of your beret - into the mainstream. With a cast that runs from A to B list, a plot that, on paper, fits the romantic comedy genre, and a post-Lost In Translation cachet thanks to Bill Murray's deadpan presence, Broken Flowers is being marketed as an arty date movie. Unless you want to use it as a warning about un-planned pregnancies, however, that's rather misleading. Neither particularly romantic nor wildly comic, it is a wistful meditation on the passing of time, the mechanics of dislocation and the random connections that complete the circuit of life. Yes, nothing says good times like a film highlighting the failures of commu-nication between men and women. It's enough to make you keep your popcorn to yourself.

From the moment he appears, it is clear that Don Johnston has something missing. Murray could convey alienation while being tickled with feathers on a bouncy castle, and Johnston, a wealthy computer executive with endless leisure time, has the expressive energy of a toad on a rock. The film starts with his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) walking out, announcing "I just don't think I want to be with an over-the-hill Don Juan any more." Most men faced with Delpy's departure would weep bitter tears; Johnston sits on his sofa watching TV. His next-door neighbour Winston (the charming Jeffrey Wright) tells him he is sorry. "Yeah. Me too. I think," responds Don.

His missing something isn't just emotional, however - Johnston has also apparently mislaid his DNA. The morning Sherry leaves, he receives an unsigned letter on pink notepaper informing him that he has a teenage son and that this boy is coming to find him. Encouraged by the optimistic Winston, he lists the five women who could potentially be the mother (they turn out to be Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and one woman who was killed in a car crash but who was probably big in the Eighties as well), and reluctantly sets off across America to solve the mystery.

Punctuated with gaps and spaces, this is a film missing something itself. The half-lit rooms and half-spoken words may be atmospheric, but any more shots of Murray rifling through maps or driving down generic roads and it would be an AA infomercial. Rather than embarking on the mythic American road trip of big sky and boxcars, Don makes a slow journey through Nowheresville in economy class and hire car: this is an America of grubby highway greenery, soulless upscale estates, nameless airports, ramshackle bungalows. Meanwhile Murray, the master of understated anxiety, is blanked out even further by the dark glasses he wears for much of the film.

It takes the performances of the female leads to give shape to this blankness, and Jarmusch, with admirable economy, sketches their lives with precision. There's Laura (Stone), the sexually needy "closet organiser" who named her nymphet daughter (the gleefully naked Alexis Dziena) Lolita. There is ex-hippy Dora (Conroy), a real estate agent whose sterile domesticity is captured in the ornate turrets of food she serves Don during an excruciating meal with her husband. Jarmusch is merciless in showing such details - never more so than in Don's encounter with Carmen (Lange), an "animal communicator" possibly having an affair with her ferocious secretary (Chloe Sevigny). A man leaves her surgery cradling a rabbit: "It takes a lot of courage to say what you said," he whispers. Lange's sensitive face conveys long-buried pain - but there is more literal pain in the scenes with Swinton's smouldering biker-chick Penny, whose butch male companions fiercely object to Don's presence.

It is Winston, however, who is the film's real life-force, blessed with numerous kids, a beautiful wife and an energetic work ethic. He is also the source of its guiding music - wonderfully incongruous Ethiopian jazz from Mulatu Astatke - and it is his mystery- solving hobby that gets this weird little show on the road. Considering that Jarmusch is such a big-hitter among the indie film set, it is striking that Broken Flowers could be interpreted as having a profoundly conventional message. For all the eccentric twists and cool detachment, its central lesson seems to be that a happy man is a settled man.

The film flirts with closure in the enigmatic final scenes but, like Don, it refuses to commit. He has, it seems, learned a lesson about living a good life, but it is impossible to predict what he will do with this knowledge. You remember instead the opening sequence, which followed the fateful letter from postbox to sorting office to postman. Whatever you send out, you don't know what you're going to get back. A son, a lover, nothing at all. Similarly, Broken Flowers, coming from a postcode of its own, doesn't quite deliver.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy and demons