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Some will be bored by Broken Flowers, the latest film from minimalists Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray. But in the slow pace of long takes and awkward silences there is room for human drama.

Lookin’ for Love

Some Americans don't like this deadpan, sad, ponderous style
Some Americans don’t like this deadpan, sad, ponderous style

Murray plays a couch potato. He had some sort of success in the computer biz, but he seems to be unemployed at the moment. We find him watching The Private Life of Don Juan on what must be TCM. It isn’t working, though; his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) is moving out.

He gets a pink letter in the mail. It’s a typewritten, unsigned note, with no return address, saying that he has a son who is now 19 and may be seeking him out. Our own Don Juan (Don Johnston is actually Murray’s character’s name) wonders which of his previous flings might have borne fruit.

Don’s friend and neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) is an amateur sleuth who loves the Internet. When he finds out that Don has a little mystery on his hands, he jumps on the case. By the next morning, Winston has picked five likely candidates as the old flame who had the son. He has also created an itinerary and booked reservations and car rentals for Don. Before Don can really object, he finds himself on a road trip through his love life.

Don shambles through his past, ringing dutifully on ever door in his itinerary. I won’t give away too much, but one of his exes has a daughter aptly named Lolita; another is an “animal communicator,” and yet another has gone redneck. In each place, Don gently guides the awkward conversation to see if any of these women have sons, pink stationery, a typewriter, or anything else that might be a clue.

Long Shots and Long Takes

The cinematography (by Frederick Elmes) looks very good, in a Jarmusch sort of way. There are more long shots (i.e., distant shots) than most directors are willing to try, and there plenty of Jarmusch’s trademark long takes (i.e., shots that go a long time between cuts).

Better than the photography is some excellent editing. Editor Jay Rabinowitz fades to black between groups of scenes, making them feel like distinct chapters. These chapter breaks are often important because many back-to-back sections are emotionally different from one another.

In between visits with different women, Jarmusch includes montages of Don driving from place to place, watching the scenery change. In a more conventional film, these scenes would either be cut out completely, or edited to a pop song as a commercial for the movie’s soundtrack CD. In Broken Flowers these montages are emotional buffer zones, as Don approaches a new ex, or reflects on his relationship with the one he just visited.

Jarmusch also includes some wonderfully insightful scenes of Don’s dreams. Sleeping fitfully in a motel or on an airplane, Don’s mind processes the day’s events. We see flashes from previous scenes looking slightly unreal. Don dreams of beautiful young women — “Lolita” in the nude and that flight attendant who was working the crossword. He also remembers the little gestures and phrases from his exes that either turned him on or hurt his ego. If dreams help us process long term memories, then Don’s dreams probably look just the way Jarmusch and Rabinowitz edited them.

Minimalist Backlash

Jarmusch leaves the ending open to interpretation. As with Lost in Translation, the last scene wraps things up emotionally without spelling things out for the audience. At least one person in my audience found this frustrating. But I think Jarmusch is right to leave us where he does.

Minimalism is not for all tastes. There was a backlash against Lost in Translation, which showed, I think, than many Americans don’t like this deadpan, sad, ponderous style. But I say there is charm and appeal in the little moments. One of the funniest moments in Broken Flowers is Bill Murray eating a forkful of carrots. One of the most telling moments is a still life — Murray sits near a flute of champagne, never quite able to decide whether or not his situation deserves a celebration (or is it just alcohol, a depressant?).

The power of these scenes comes from their interaction with an attentive audience. If you go to Broken Flowers simply to be entertained, it may not work.

Still Life

Even if minimalism is your cup of tea, the movie is not perfect. Don’s Ethiopian neighbors are great, but Don’s friendly relationship with them seems too convenient, too cute, and too written; it doesn’t feel natural. And the whole setup — a long lost son from an unknown girlfriend — takes too long in coming and is disappointingly conventional when it arrives.

But for me, the little moments and the chance to participate in them make Broken Flowers a still life I’m willing to stare at for two hours.