When a pink envelope arrives on the doormat of ageing Lothario Don Johnston (Bill Murray) it is a scented time bomb. The anonymous writer informs him he has a 19-year old son who is looking for him. The news prompts Johnston, freshly dumped by his latest young blonde, to embark on a quest to find the mother of his unknown son that takes him to five ex-girlfriends. What follows in Jim Jarmusch's sardonic take on ageing, loneliness and the gender wars is an enlightened reversal of Murray's standard shtick. Instead of the lugubrious-but-with-a-twinkle-in-the-eye delivery usually associated with the actor, Jarmusch reveals an unexpected existential bleakness.
I have never been a fan of Murray. To me he is a lazy actor who turns up on set, does his thing and that's it. It was the central joke in Lost in Translation, in which he plays an actor who turns up on set looking bored. He has made some good films, led by Groundhog Day, which shows he has a good eye for scripts, but there is a knowingness about his acting. He is too aware of how little he gives audiences in return for their adoration. The laugh is always on us.
In Broken Flowers Murray redeems himself, though you have to wait for the final slap in the face scene to realise that. A strong cast aids him. His exes, Sharon Stone, Frances Six Feet Under Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton are not abandoned victims of a rapacious and heartless man, but women who have grown stronger with age. They are an unflattering mirror for Murray's Johnston, whose empty existence is revealed by the search.
That the stereotypes are to be overturned by Jarmusch's clever, questioning - and let it be said funny - script is hinted in Johnston's first scene, as he watches an old Don Juan movie, in which the legendary lover laughs at his discarded women fighting for supremacy at his mock funeral. It is a comment about our age: in the past Don Juan defined those women. Now the women in Don Johnston's life define themselves.
As well as strong performances by the exes, Jeffrey Wright as Winston, Murray's amateur sleuth neighbour, is all life and curiosity, a perfect foil to Johnston's doleful presence. Alexis Dziena, as Sharon Stone's precocious daughter Lolita, captures to comic perfection the disturbing mix of sexual aggression and naivety in teenage girls that is so confusing for certain men.
This is not a big film. It is a small film in the best sense of the phrase, providing few, if any, answers to life's dilemmas. It is refreshing antidote to a Hollywood that sees life along tram lines when the reality is far more complex - and interesting. It also shows that Murray's shtick is more nuanced than we had been led to believe and that behind the expressionless face lie powerful emotions.