Broken Flowers (15)

Tears of a clown on the road
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And who better to sound such a note than Bill Murray? He plays a jaded bachelor, Don Johnston, whom we are led to believe has been something of a Don Juan; the film is not five minutes old before his latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy) walks out, leaving him in a near-catatonic trance on his huge leather sofa. The camera gazes for a long, long time into the lined, impassive contours of his face: is there anybody home? Later the same day Don receives an unsigned letter, apparently from an old flame informing him that he has a 19-year-old son. At a loss, he takes the enigmatic missive round to his next-door neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a genial family man with a passionate interest in detective stories. Enthused by the prospect of cracking "a case", Winston encourages Don to draw up a list of possible suspects - four girlfriends from nearly 20 years back - and then dispatches him on a cross-country itinerary in search of the one who wrote the letter. It's like Jack Nicholson hitting the road in About Schmidt, minus the chummy voiceover.

Don has only two clues to work on: his correspondent owns a typewriter, and favours pink stationery. On Winston's advice, he brings pink flowers as a gift for each woman. At some point you may ask yourself, why doesn't he save himself a lot of trouble and just telephone them? And the answer would have to be, because this is a Jarmusch movie, where people feel bound to undertake strange and unfathomable journeys: think of Johnny Depp wandering the surreal landscape of Dead Man (1995), or of Forrest Whitaker adrift as the Samurai killer in Ghost Dog (1999). Don is making a pilgrimage into his own past. We watch him sitting awkwardly in his economy-class seat, looking at maps, driving a rental car down nondescript highways and byways, and the further he travels the more isolated he seems. America, in Jarmusch's deadpan vision, has nothing to offer a man who's lost the directions to his own life.

What awaits him, and us, is a sweet and sour comedy of lost loves. His first port of call, a widowed blonde played by Sharon Stone, proves a relatively painless encounter, with the bonus of her teenage daughter, Lolita, offering a sight for sore eyes. Thereafter he experiences something of downturn in warmth, the silences grow longer and the embarrassment sharper. Whether it is impatience we see in Frances Conroy's real-estate broker or repressed yearning (she still wears the rope of pearls Don gave her) is difficult to tell. All he can be sure of is that she's married a berk (Christopher McDonald). There's nothing very equivocal about Jessica Lange's reaction to him. She plays a "communicator" who talks to distressed household pets. "What did he say?" asks Don when the cat stares at him. "He says you have a hidden agenda," Lange replies. As for the brittle recluse (Tilda Swinton) now hanging out with bikers, well, he might wish he hadn't bothered showing up.

The fact that little is actually happening doesn't seem to trouble Jarmusch, though it should perhaps trouble us. The film essentially performs the same trick as Lost in Translation, spinning out a middle-aged man's emotional dislocation into an existential mood piece of plaintive looks and ambient music. And there's a strong likelihood it wouldn't hold up without Murray, the sad-clown prince and world-class haunter of hotel rooms. He conveys bemusement and weariness very disarmingly, and his minimal shifts of expression are a gift to a director who prizes studied cool above all else. He's not so much a great actor as a great reactor, waiting and watching as others babble on, registering as little as politeness allows on that imperturbable phiz.

The problem is that Jarmusch hasn't quite got the willpower to pull it together as a movie. He keeps offering us pink-hued hints as to who might have written Don that letter, yet he doesn't really forge a connection between any of the characters. Don's final encounter isn't with a woman but with a backpacking youth, and one notes the visual rhyme of the stripes on his Fred Perry tracksuit and the boy's hooded top; again, though, this is the film-maker asking us to admire his formal dexterity rather than reaching towards some moral epiphany.

As far as Jarmusch is concerned, Don's trip can be as empty or as topful of meaning as we want. What keeps us engaged - "enthralled" might be pushing it - are the terrific performances of the women in general and of Murray in particular. In 1990, when Murray was still in his zany, Saturday Night Live phase, he starred in Quick Change as a bankrobber dressed as a clown. A security guard sees his gun and asks him, "What the hell kind of a clown are you?" To which Murray deadpans, "The crying-on-the-inside kind". Fifteen years later, Broken Flowers confirms it, truly, as his life's work.