[Screen It]

(2005) (Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright) (R)

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Dramedy/Comedy: After receiving an unsigned letter from a former lover stating he has a son he never knew about, an over-the-hill Don Juan sets out to revisit his lovers from long ago to try to find out which is the mother.
Don Johnston (BILL MURRAY) was once quite the ladies man, but his reputation of being a middle-aged Don Juan doesn't sit well with his girlfriend, Sherry (JULIE DELPY), who promptly dumps him and moves out. The news only gets better for him when he receives an anonymous letter -- complete with a too faded to read postmark -- from some past lover who states that she had his child twenty years ago and that his son is now searching for him.

Despite having made all of his money from the computer business, Don doesn't own one at home, so his next-door neighbor Winston (JEFFREY WRIGHT) -- a family man with three jobs and a desire to be a private detective -- takes it upon himself to do some digging and figure out who the woman might be. With a list of Don's lovers from that era, Winston comes up with four potential women and arranges trips for Don to visit them.

There's closet organizer Laura (SHARON STONE), whose teenage daughter Lolita (ALEXIS DZIENA) lives up to the reputation of her name. Former lover Dora (FRANCES CONROY) is now married to Ron (CHRISTOPHER McDONALD), but doesn't seem happy in her life. Animal communicator Carmen (JESSICA LANGE) is amused but cautious about Don's sudden visit -- while her assistant (CHLOň SEVIGNY) obviously doesn't like him. The same seems to hold true for Penny (TILDA SWINTON) who lives on a farm where some men only reinforce that reaction.

Without coming right out and asking them if they're the letter writer and mother of his child, Don tries to feel each of them out for the answer, all while watching for clues as well as eyeing any young men who might be the right age to be his son.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Among their repertoire of thespian tools, few things work better for actors and actresses than their facial expressions. That might not be as important for those on the stage who have to play everything exaggeratedly big to reach the viewer in the back row.

But for those on TV and especially the movies (where their mugs can be stories tall), it's paramount (not to mention universal - ha-ha) to have full control of those facial muscles. After all, and to quote Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd," "I'm ready for my close-up."

For some performers, their facial expressions can be as stiff as their acting, but when the good ones are on, the results are golden. Such is the case with Bill Murray who once again milks that exasperated hangdog expression that he often exhibits to comic perfection, this time doing so in "Broken Flowers."

A dramedy detective story of sorts about an aging Don Juan who sets out to find the mother of the son he's only just learned about, the film is the latest from indie filmmaker favorite Jim Jarmusch ("Ghost Dog," "Stranger Than Paradise").

Having previously directed the comedic actor in one of those vignettes in "Coffee and Cigarettes," the director knows he once again has a comedic tiger by the tail in the form of Murray who he lets loose on and in his film. Yet, rather than ravaging the cinematic countryside in some over-the-top style, Murray delivers yet another brilliantly nuanced performance where those facial expressions are the main key to his and the film's success.

All of which is important because without the actor and his bemused, deadpan reactions to the plot's various events, the film would be far more of a humdrum experience despite sporting a great cast of actors and actresses in supporting roles.

That's not to say, however, that the rest of the picture is without its charms. The basic gist - of having Murray's character reconnecting with his former lovers in an attempt to figure out which is the mother who sent him an anonymous letter about him having a son - is rife with potential, of both comedic and dramatic varieties.

Yet, the filmmaker's script, while providing for a handful of laughs - mainly of the dry variety - doesn't fully take advantage of the scenario. While can only imagine how the women would react to the protagonist's surprise visit some twenty years after the fact, as well as how he would respond to how they have and have not changed over all of the years, on an overall humor scale, the film feels like a near miss. There are blossoms to be sure, but not everything here goes into full, glorious bloom.

The little bits of dialogue, individual moments and, of course, Murray's trademark frozen look of amusement mixed with disdain, fear and a host of other emotions more than makes up for those misses. That said, there are no big belly laughs and the dry sense of humor and overall plot might be a bit too leisurely and some will say slow for all viewers. While not as good as "Lost in Translation," it's far more akin to that offering in style and tempo than Murray's more rambunctious comedies of old.

Jeffrey Wright ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Ali") is also quite good as the next-door neighbor who - being an amateur gumshoe -- insists that Murray's character discover the anonymous letter writer's identity. The two perfectly play off each other (especially in a priceless phone conversation) and generate some of the more amusing moments.

The likes of Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and Frances Conroy are all decent as the ladies in question, while Julie Delpy and ChloŽ Sevigny have smaller parts, but it's Alexis Dziena ("Wonderland") who makes the biggest impression doing her jaw-dropping, Lolita-based version of the full monty.

More for the art house crowd than mainstream comedy fans, "Broken Flowers" offers enough amusing moments along with a comedic actor still at the top of his game to make this worthwhile for those who like their humor delivered in slow, fine touches rather than broad, common strokes. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed June 30, 2005 / Posted August 5, 2005

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