Broken Flowers (2005)

In my Silver City review, I mentioned my recent writing retreat, in which I went internet-free in a cabin for a week to get some fiction writing done, and the collection of “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years”-era DVDs that had been purchased during that organization’s decline and which found there way to the cabin. One of these films was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. I have a complete and utter Jarmusch blind spot, never having seen any of his films. In fact, I only know him from his appearance on Fishing with John for, as you well know by now dear reader, I am a weirdo. After the abysmal experience of watching In Secret and once again trying and failing to get through Titus, I really wanted to clear my Jessica Lange palate, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a serial womanizer, now retired after having done quite well in the field of “computers,” and living rather disaffectedly. When his latest ladyfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, citing that she feels like his mistress even though he isn’t married, he receives a second blow: an untraceable letter from a woman claiming that Don fathered a now nineteen-year-old son with her and she kept it from him. The letter’s author warns that the boy is now on a road trip, and she has her suspicions that he’s looking for his father, and doesn’t want Don to be taken completely unaware. At the urging of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don travels to see the five women who might have sent the letter.

First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), who married a now-dead stock car racer. Now a professional closet organizer, she does have a teenaged child—a daughter inexplicably named Lolita, who even more inexplicably expresses a sexual interest in 55-year-old Don. Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy), formerly a flower child but now leading a boring existence as the wife and business partner of real estate agent Ron (Christopher McDonald). Then it’s on to Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who Don remembers as being very passionate about becoming a lawyer, but who is now some kind of animal whisperer, and from there Don locates Penny (Tilda Swinton), living in a bleak, crumbling clapboard farmhouse somewhere that definitely has a meth problem. Finally, Don visits the grave of Michelle, the fifth and final potential author of the letter. Returning home, he notices a young man (Mark Webber) whom he seems to remember having run into before, and buys him a sandwich and a coffee. Assuming that the boy is the long-lost son whose arrival was foretold, Don starts talking about being the kid’s father, freaking him out and causing him to run off. Alone in the street, Don watches as a car drives by slowly as a teenaged boy (Homer Murray, Bill’s real life son) makes eye contact with Don from the passenger seat, and then is gone.

While definitely a product of a certain time and of a certain generation of masculinity, which detracted from the end product for me, this was a good watch overall. The idea of Don Johnston as a Don Juan-esque lothario is a bit of a stretch (no offense to Murray, but let’s get real) and the fact that the film hinges on not just his one-time sexual voracity in his peak, but also his virility and that he’s never changed his behavior, is the weakest element. Murray’s also doing none of the heavy lifting here, as the editing is doing nearly all of the work while Murray sits back and lets his motionless silence be captured by Jarmusch’s directorial eye. There’s a great performance in here from the male lead, but it’s all in the Kuleshov of it all, while Murray does that thing that he always does (hey—if it’s not broke).

Looking at Jarmusch’s larger filmography, it seems his earlier films that predate Broken Flowers were largely anthological works, while his more recent ones seem to be more standard in their narrative structure, and this film is a kind of bridge between those two forms, conceptually, as it follows Don through a series of vignettes that consist of reunions with the women he once loved, each one shorter than the last, beginning with an overnight with Laura, a dinner with Dora and her husband, a constantly-interrupted period between appointments with Carmen, a four or five sentence exchange with Penny, and finally no time at all with Michelle. This adherence to structure is something that I love in any work of art; I think that the attention to detail is something that soothes my hyperactive brain. There’s also a lot of fun with the minor details of each interaction: Laura’s daughter’s detachment from the death of her father (“It was on the TV”), the utter sterility and banality of Dora’s bland dinner (a big slab of meat, unseasoned white rice, and crinkle cut carrots, possibly boiled), and the dilapidation of Penny’s home. There’s also something fascinating about the high number of basketball hoops everywhere he goes, which Don always instantly assumes means that there’s a teenage boy about and that he’s come to the right place, and yet their omnipresence renders them completely irrelevant as a clue.

Before Don goes on his adventure, Winston primes him to be on the lookout for pink items and objects to match the pink paper on which the letter was typed, and to try and obtain writing samples to compare to the written address on the envelope, which is the only handwriting on the letter. Although he isn’t successful in the latter endeavor, he (and by extension the viewer) is drawn to pink items everywhere in his adventure: Penny’s boots and motorcycle, Dora’s business card (to match her husband’s blue one), Carmen’s pants, etc. It’s a nice touch that, like the basketball hoops that appear so frequently, all of these clues are meaningless as well. The film sets itself up as a mystery: who sent the letter? And in the end, that mystery isn’t important, and remains unsolved. Each woman with whom he reunites is utterly noncommittal in their responses to Don’s roundabout questions, and in the end, it’s not as if he could have expected something different: if any one of them had taken the time to send Don a letter without divulging their identity, then they wouldn’t really allow themselves to be taken by surprise as he intends and suddenly confess when confronted in person. The possibility is even floated that Sherry wrote the letter as an attempt to shake Don out of his comfort zone, and that’s a possibility, but that resolution doesn’t really matter in the end.

As a showcase for the women who round out this cast, including Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant and Pell James as Sun Green, a compassionate florist who tends to the wounds that Don received from Penny’s friends, this is a pretty nice vehicle. It’s a film with a lot of breathing room but no real fat to be trimmed, playing out in shots that are long enough to convey meaning and last not one moment more. The blipvert/fever dreams that Don has in his quiet moments were initially distracting, especially as they simply once more reminded viewers that Don is still a perfectly virile man capable of sexual thought, which errs a little too close to the “New Yorker story in which an aging professional lusts after his student/protege” genre for my personal tastes, but not enough to derail the whole shebang.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

That’s So Ava!: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)’s Potential Second Life as a Multi-Cam Sitcom

There’s a certain crop of 90s art house films that I can never quite fully give into despite their consistently positive reputations. Titles like Clerks, Slacker, and Living in Oblivion are supposedly essential to the voice of a disaffected, laid back generation of arty farty types, but I often have a difficult time connecting with what they’re selling (possibly because they pretend not to be selling anything at all). Gen-X cinema often purported to be the laid back slacker counterpoint to the over-enthusiastic, grandiose generations that came before, but in actuality felt more try-hard & fresh out of art school than ever. The king of this I Don’t Care At All (But I Secretly Care Too Much) aesthetic is, in my mind, one Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s intentional art house pretension leads to some interesting moments that all too often get drowned out by the suffocating self-indulgence that surrounds them. There are some amazing small moments & images in Jarmsuch titles like Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, and Coffee & Cigarettes, but all three of those examples leave me so frustrated because they ultimately feel like wasted potential when considered in their fatally affected totality.

As much as I can be frustrated with Jarmusch’s overall product, I genuinely enjoy his sillier flourishes. Besides poking fun at his own self-serious mystique on the show Bored to Death & appearing as the “French fried potater” salesman in Sling Blade, the director always includes a flight of fancy or two in his works that catch my attention & delight me. Bill Murray serving diner food to the Wu Tang Clan, Steve Buscemi getting hung up on Lost in Space trivia, and (in my only pet favorite from the director’s catalog) Roberto Benigni annoying the piss out of Tom Waits are the kinds of breath-of-fresh-air moments of sublime humor that nearly save his work for me. Nearly. If Jarmusch dealt exclusively in broad, yuck-it-up comedy instead of using it to punctuate his more intellectual tendencies toward existential self-reflection I might even be willing to call myself a fan.

I waited as long as possible to catch up with Jarmusch’s most recent work, the vampiric existential crisis piece Only Lovers Left Alive, despite my burning fan worship of bonafide changeling Tilda Swinton (who was on fire that year, considering her work in Snowpiercer & Grand Budapest Hotel). Something about the film’s promo material struck me as a lowkey remake of The Hunger (I still don’t think I was entirely off-base there), which is one of those delicately immaculate cult films that probably should not be touched or even cautiously approached. Buried somewhere deep in the film’s ennui & self-pity, however, was one of those typical Jarmusch saving graces I’m prattling on about here. Mia Wasikowska, who has dazzled me before in titles like Crimson Peak & Maps to the Stars, absolutely steals the show in Only Lovers Left Alive. There’s some kind of self-important rock star cool at the heart of Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton’s titular vampiric lovers that honestly bores me to no end in the film, but Wasikowska’s wonderfully disruptive, chaotic presence brings the film, well, back from the dead with the minuscule screentime she’s allowed. Swinton’s matriarch vampire Eve (her vampy hubby’s name is Adam btw *puke*) is struggling with the tedium of centuries-long survival, but her younger, still-stoked sister Ava is a frivolous hoot. She consistently fucks up, wreaks havoc, and over-indulges like a spoiled brat, a behavioral pattern Adam indicates is habitual . . . which finally brings me to my pitch.

Imagine for a minute an alternate, preferable universe in which Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t a stuffy art house film about addiction or romantic ennui or whatever, but instead a multi-cam sitcom with a laugh track in which Wasikowska’s vampire brat Ava crashed the gloomy party every week in spectacular fashion. I want to go to there. Adam & Ava have an exquisitely balanced Odd Couple dynamic. His gloom & her glitz clash beautifully & hilariously, but aren’t given nearly enough screen time to fully play out. Fairly soon after Ava arrives from Los Angeles & burns Adam’s entire life to ground, he’s stuffing her into a cab so that he can pout & whither with Eve in Europe somewhere. Boring. It’s not fair to me as a trash-loving citizen of the movie-going audience. I demand more goofy, disastrous Ava antics, preferably delivered to my television set on a weekly basis with a laugh track prompting me on when to chuckle & slap my knee. Wasikowska delivers a stellar performance here as a bubbly (unintentional) antagonist brat & I could watch her do that shtick for at least 100 syndicated episodes of a formulaic sitcom.

Unfortunately, Wasikowska feels like she’s performing in an entirely different movie form everyone else (Amy Heckerling’s underrated gem Vamps, maybe?) and, although I understand the sentiment is far from universal, it’s a movie I’d much rather be watching. This film’s Gen-X aesthetic hangover just doesn’t do it for me the way an Ava vs. Adam sitcom would. I’m totally okay with how vapid that makes me sound; I just also wish that I had the funding to make the ultimate reality where we had a That’s So Ava! sitcom meld with our own. The world would be a much better place for it.

-Brandon Ledet