I remember the first time I ever saw Bill Murray. It was 1977. I was ten years old. It was on Saturday Night Live. He was playing his lounge lizard act and singing (aka warping) his own rendition of the Star Wars theme song to a crowd of half-laughing / half-perplexed audience members. I'm not sure if I snuck down to our rec room to see it or if my parents were out and the babysitter fell asleep or what the conditions may have been to allow a very impressionable ten year old boy to see a show considered so "adult" back then. Perhaps the story is aprocyphal and I am actually remembering seeing the show in reruns during my teen years. Who knows. The point of my mentioning this does not have any bearing on the authenticity of my childhood memories, but more on my love of Bill Murray, right from the start.
In his earlier days - from Saturday Night Live through Groundhog Day, Murray had mostly been tossed off as a funny guy, but not much else going on inside kind of actor. It was Wes Anderson's Rushmore and the subsequent Royal Tanenbaums that started giving rise to the possibilities of us having a real honest-to-goodness comic genius on our hands. It was Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Murray's first ever Oscar nomination that pretty much cemented the deal. Well, I am here to tell you that I knew it all along. I, and I suppose a scant few others, were privy to the secret the whole damn time. Bill Murray is the minimalistic malaisical master of ceremonies I always knew he could be.
Combine this "new" side of Bill Murray with the laid back restful filmmaking style of the Eurocentric Jim Jarmusch, and it is a strange wonder that these two never worked together until a year and a half ago in the episodic Coffee & Cigarettes, where Murray is an over-caffinated drink-straight-from-the-fucking-pot madman, sharing his manic screen time with Wu Tang regulars RZA and GZA. Here, in a much more mellow - almost methodical - manner, Murray plays Don Johnston (with a T), a middle-aged semi-recluse computer magnate who has left a trail of female conquests in his wake, including the tucked, poked, pulled, prodded and botoxed wonders of Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange, the surprisingly youthful dowager queen of TV's Six Feet Under, Francis Conroy, and the sadly under-used Tilda Swinton (c'mon, if you have the wonderful Tilda Swinton in your film, you have got to put her in for longer than two and a half minutes!). Murray is, what current (soon-to-be-ex) girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy) calls an over-the-hill Don Juan. A point driven home by the near-same monicker given to him by his seemingly only friend - and next-door neighbour - Winston (Jeffrey Wright) and the fact that Murray is pensively watching Don Juan on TV as Sherry leaves him.
As this opening exit-and-insult barrage happens, Don receives an anonymous letter telling him that he has a nineteen year old son out there somewhere. With the help of Winston - a self-proclaimed detective story junkie - Don sets out in search of the mother of his child. A group of former girlfriends that is pared down to the four aforementioned possiblities of Stone, Lange, Conroy and Swinton. It is in these encounters, played with the episodic feel of Jarmusch's latant camera, that Don finds both hilarity and tragedy. Laura (Stone) is a recently widowed Nascar wife ("He went up in a ball of flame.") with a daughter named Lolita, who definately lives up to her namesake, as she strips naked and offers Don a popsicle. Dora (Conroy) is a pent-up real estate agent with the perfect little picture home, right out of Home & Garden Magazine. Perfect and sterile at the same time. Carmen (Lange) is an animal communicator (you'll have to see the film to see exactly what that means) new agey possible lesbian stand-offish encounter with a glaringly mini-skirted assistant (ChloŽ Sevigny). And Penny (Swinton) is a flannelled bitter redneck surrounded by a bunch of toothless mulleted bikers who end up giving Don a physical rakeover.
Overall, Don's travels lead him exactly nowhere. He - and we - are left to wonder what it was all about as we are led to the best anti-ending since last year's Before Sunset. Full of multitudes of unspoken moments that bring thoughts of Antonioni and Tarkovsky and even Ozu to mind, and never quite crossing over to that Alexander Payne-ish About Schmidt sillyness that brought that otherwise fantastic film down to its knees, Broken Flowers is probably Jarmusch's best and most mature work to date, but it is Bill Murray who drives it all home. Bill Murray, the best ever at doing nothing and making sure you enjoy every moment of him doing nothing, is once again the melancholy master of his domain. [08/25/05]