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

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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I was more than a little weary about venturing out to see Todd Solondz’s latest pitch black provocation, the ensemble cast “comedy” Wiener-Dog, last weekend. I hadn’t seen a Solondz flick since 2001’s mostly-forgettable anthology piece Storytelling and I’m a lot less cynical than I was in my college days when I would have listed Happiness as one of my all-time favorite films. I was right to worry too, not because Wiener-Dog is necessarily bad or mediocre Solondz, but because it’s very much steeped in the niche he’s carved out for himself as a storyteller. The writer-director works the absurdist cruelty that made him something of an indie scene name in the 90s with titles like Happiness & Welcome to the Dollhouse into the everything-is-connected (and equally hopeless) anthology structure of Storytelling, constructing an amusingly odd & deeply painful existential crisis that is unmistakably his own style & tone. What’s most interesting here, though, is how much of Solondz’s own personality is displayed & dissected onscreen. The director not only stubbornly recommits to the bleak trajectory of his life’s work; he also steps back to question why he would make such pointless, nihilistic art in the first place. Solondz coldly asks the audience what is the point of anything at all, but is smart to include his own art & existence in that query. The answer is far from concrete, but it’s haunting in its abstraction.

In a basic, structural sense Wiener-Dog is a road trip tour through Todd Solondz’s America. Similar to the black comedy Baxter, the film follows its titular dog, a dachshund, as it changes ownership though various tragedies & betrayals, providing a window into the dreary homes & familial structures that typify a nation Solondz finds . . . distasteful. A young cancer survivor (whose visage playfully cribs from the Linklater landmark Boyhood) falls in love with the dog as his first pet; an old woman tenderly cares for it as her last. A vet tech takes the pup on a road trip; a lonely college professor contains it in his tiny office & apartment. Every owner the dachshund encounters is vulnerable & alone in a cruel world eager to punish them for any display of open-hearted earnestness. Together, they form an American patchwork that paints the country as “lonely”, “sad”, “depressing”, “like an elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” Solondz’s America is brimming with strip clubs, alcoholism, superhero movies, hipster irony, mental disability, misogynistic video games, heroin, diarrhea, and a beyond-broken economy. People lie, threaten, and manipulate each other in a never-ending cycle of cruelty and the folks who suffer the most damage from that time-honored American tradition are the ones most capable of empathy & selflessness. The one exception might be Solondz’s surrogate, a frustrated film school professor who can’t overcome his own bitterness, lest you think the director himself wasn’t also complicit in that cycle. It’s dark stuff.

So, where does the innocent wiener-dog fit in all of this? As Danny DeVito’s bitter film professor/Solondz surrogate puts it, “You need a schtick. Everyone loves a little schtick.” If in Solondz’s America the earnest & the eager are the most harshly & frequently punished, a dog is the best possible manifestation of that concept, since all the little pups of the world really want to do is please us & be loved. Watching the wiener-dog ride skateboard or wear a cute costume is a great way to grab an audience’s attention & force them to focus on something uncomfortable, a gimmick Solondz pulls off openly & deliberately. During an old-fashioned intermission our canine talisman is represented as a larger than life, fiercely American tall tale with her own theme song, a moment that reinforces the empty artificiality of filmmaking as an art. After this break, the dog’s ownership changes hands without explanation, moving away from the linear storytelling of the first half & becoming an explicit plot device (quite literally in one particular moment of workplace terrorism, yet another American pastime). Solondz gets bored of his own structural schtick & begins to point his cinematic weaponry back at himself, asking questions like, “Why do you want to be a filmmaker?” and addressing criticisms of his work like, “The general consensus is that you’re too negative.” By the last shot the dog doesn’t matter at all and is reduced to the most meaningless of abstract art piece reflections on the mundanity of existence & mortality. It wags its tail & barks, but that action signifies nothing.

It’s difficult to figure out how to sell Todd Solondz’s films, which tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between comedy & tragedy that’s more likely to make you squirm than laugh or cry (despite what their oddly generic trailers indicate). Wiener-Dog seems to be a self-examination piece on the cruel stage play absurdity & ultimate pointlessness of that art/schtick’s place in this world and, more specifically, its function within a spiritually drained, soulless America. Just as I questioned what significance a modern Solondz work could possibly hold in my life, the director himself seems equally eager to prod at that conundrum in the context of life at large. There are some great performances along the way (DeVito, playwright Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burnstyn, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig in an all-growed-up Welcome to the Dollhouse role), that might each have served as a worthwhile character study in an indie dramedy had Solondz followed through on any particular full-length narrative, but the director doesn’t seem to think telling these stories from front to end is worthwhile. Exhausted with the soulless journeymen efforts of “What if? Then what?” screenplay writing, he instead reflects on an artform & a nation that he feels have failed us all. You can see that despair plainly in a tender, delicate pan over an endless display of canine diarrhea.  Solondz displays the skills required to deliver a great film were he interested, but the exercise seems increasingly empty to him. Watching him mull over that emptiness and the great, hopeless expanse of the country & mortality that contain it is largely what makes Wiener-Dog fascinating, if not soul-crushingly depressing, which is par for the course in the context of Solondz’s catalog. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that kind of dispirited existential crisis & self-examination sounds at all palatable to your tastes for an evening’s entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet