The same things that make growing older cruel and unhappy are sometimes the same things that make it interesting and worthwhile. For instance, at 27, if I look back twenty years I find the 1st grade with its social obliviousness, emotional awkwardness and general ambivalence – nothing worth exploring – but if I am in my 60's and I travel back as Bill Murray's Don Johnston does in Jim Jarmusch's charming Broken Flowers, there is real substance, both wonderful and terrible to be found. How absolutely fascinating and depressing it must be to have a past. You need to have lived a long life to earn one – a real past – including characters and places that were once long ago so important and vital to your existence (to defining who you are today) and then just drop out of the storyline for a few decades only to be revisited late in the game. While Johnston revisits four former lovers that he has not seen or heard from in twenty years in the name of “catching up”, his unspoken agendas is to discover if any are the mother of a son he may or may not have had.
With Jarmusch (Night on Earth) the focus is never on the “plot” but rather the human condition and the relationships we develop and dissolve as we stumble through life trying to get a few dozen things right along the way.
Here, Johnston (Murray, continuing to excel as apathetic, over-the hill, Zen masters) confronts the four women – adorable Sharon Stone, trapped Francis Conroy, broken Jessica Lange, bitter Tilda Swinton – and Jarmusch allows the meetings to just happen, unfolding in all their bizarre, melancholy glory.
These mini-epics emerge naturally but with a clear nod to the surreal. At each encounter, Jarmusch writes in something ( a basketball net, the color pink, an impossible name) that, combined with a classic Bill Murray knowing raise of the eyebrow, conveys a sense that we are observers in the land of meta.
What is most impressive about Broken Flowers is that it manages to (in a most understated way) state its message about Johnston and how life-long bachelors can sometimes, sort-of regret their choices (but not as much, perhaps, as we ball and chainers imagine) while at the same time finding humor everywhere. Jarmusch doesn't need Jim Carrey to bend over or Ben Stiller to wear fake facial hair to get a laugh – he merely turns the mirror on us. Whether it is our obsession with the internet and all the information we now can access, the way our jobs become who we are, or our preposterous self-images, Jarmusch finds the uncomfortable absurdity in all of it simply by putting it on screen for the audience to consider. Perhaps we are like the delicate petals of a flower, originally beautiful and hopeful, withering over time, fading, and breaking down.
The goal then is to live long enough to have a past, but the lesson of Broken Flowers is to live the present with the knowledge that one day looking back on it may be all you have.