The jagged edges of Broken Flowers: Deadpan can only go so far before it's dead boring
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 August 2005)

At the beginning of Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Bill Murray sits alone as the TV plays an old movie that Jarmusch has carefully chosen for its symbolic power. It's the first of many symbols that Jarmusch will spray over the audience in the next 105 minutes. He has filled Broken Flowers with messages, and wants to deliver them with as much force as possible.

Murray's character is watching The Private Life of Don Juan, a 1934 melodrama by Alexander Korda. We don't learn much about that film from Broken Flowers, but Jarmusch knows his admirers will look it up as soon as they get home.

So we have now learned that Korda's story ends with the collapse of Don Juan's erotic career, his public disgrace and his retirement from the ranks of sexual overachievers. We also know the movie failed, partly because the situation of the star, Douglas Fairbanks, resembled Don Juan's. Fairbanks had become famous playing young daredevils, but in 1934 he was 51, overweight, somewhat bald and only five years away from his fatal heart attack.

Disappointment, humiliation, the deterioration that accompanies ageing: Those were Korda's themes, and on this occasion they are Jarmusch's too. Murray, given the evocative name of Don Johnston, becomes the latest embodiment of the Don Juan myth, which has served Mozart, Moliere, Balzac, Goldoni, Byron and George Bernard Shaw (and that's the short list). The shape it takes here makes an odd comment on current movies. Jarmusch may be the king of the independents, but on this outing he can be as heavy-handed as an old MGM warhorse.

Don's latest girlfriend, who leaves him as the film opens, goes out the door calling him "a Don Juan." She considers that a devastating insult.

He's not so sure. He's not sure of anything. In an odd way, he's no longer involved in his own life. He made enough money in computers to stop working and devote himself to his hobby, pursuing women. We sense this hasn't entirely worked out. No doubt some of the men who look forward to a retirement on the golf course are appalled to discover that it's not so much fun when you do it every day.

Something like this has happened to Don. Misery has infected his soul, a kind of affective deadening. He's one of those people for whom "the great affective-passional functions and emotions," as D.H. Lawrence wrote, have ceased to exist. Certainly something has made him passive.

A letter arrives, apparently from a girlfriend of two decades ago. She says he impregnated her and now has a 19-year-old son -- who would, if he exists, be Don's only child. The alleged mom doesn't give her name or the name of the son, and Don is inclined to ignore the letter. Ignoring things is now his habit. But a neighbour persuades him to seek out some women he slept with around 1985 and find his son.

As Broken Flowers grinds on, we realize that Jarmusch wants to make, in his ironically inflected way, two points:

1. You just never know how people will turn out. One old girlfriend has become a closet organizer; people pay her to arrange their clothes. Another works as an animal behaviourist who can tell you what your pet is thinking.

2. An erotic life pursued thoughtlessly could well make you feel kind of sad.

Those thoughts may not strike anyone as fresh, but clearly Jarmusch believes he's on to something. As a long-time Jarmusch fan, from Stranger Than Paradise (1984) to Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), I found Broken Flowers painful. It's a road picture with no destination, no points of interest, and no resolution.

It made me think of Elmore Leonard's maxim: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." Jarmusch reverses that rule. He carefully inserts all the parts we would like to skip. Every time Don gets on a plane, for instance, we cut to an aircraft rising into the sky. Is that an ironic comment on other films? Whatever, it plays as a longueur, one of many.

Yet Newsweek loved Broken Flowers, The New York Times liked it, David Edelstein of Slate called it brilliant and the guy on the San Francisco Examiner reached into his drawer and pulled out "masterful." Reviewers fastened on the word "deadpan," the ancient and honourable style most famously developed by Buster Keaton. Two reviews I saw actually compared Murray to Keaton.

Certainly Murray shows us, most of the time, an immobile, impenetrable poker face. We have to guess that Don's personality has been so badly battered by hurricane-level emotions that it's hiding permanently behind a moat of inscrutability. But it's ridiculous (some would say blasphemous) to mention him alongside Keaton, a great artist, a performer of infinite variety.

Keaton had gravitas. His stoic expression never failed to mean something. As James Agee wrote in a famous 1949 essay, "No other comedian could do as much with the deadpan." That great, sad, world-weary countenance could suggest everything from mulish imperturbability to a will that was awe-inspiring in its determination to endure.

Murray's Don makes no such impression. After a while, in fact, it begins to look as if there's less to him than meets the eye. Is he expressionless because he has nothing to express? He may be unreadable, but he gives the impression that if we could read him the text would be no more illuminating than, say, Fun with Dick and Jane.

Jarmusch has carefully developed a repertoire of understatement; typically, his actors show no reaction even to astounding events. But when Broken Flowers combines Murray's deadpan acting with Jarmusch's deadpan direction, they cancel each other out.

In recent years, the great tradition of Keaton's art has been nimbly put to work several times, perhaps most memorably in two superb but quite different European films, Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past, from Finland, and Patrice Leconte's The Man on the Train, from France. Each of them plays with deadpan as an element in a story about people we want to know better. But in Broken Flowers that noble tradition comes skidding to a halt. It would be too much to say that it leaves deadpan dead on arrival, but there are moments when that's how it feels.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page