Deadpan can be a spiritual state, a kind of serenity, as in the acting of Buster Keaton, but it can also be emotional cowardice masquerading as cool. It's often the latter, I think, in the early work of the director Jim Jarmusch and the actor Bill Murray. That's not meant to be dismissive. I treasure Murray's ironic (and hilarious) detachment in Stripes and Ghostbusters and Jarmusch's static frames in Stranger Than Paradise, a masterwork in which itty-bitty form and itty-bitty content coalesced into something that captured an '80s East Village anomie that had saturated the culture. But there's only so far you can go in that direction before you run out of variations—before that immaculate little room begins to feel like a prison.
While neither man has forsaken deadpan altogether (it's in their creative DNA), both continue to evolve. In Jarmusch's work in the visionary neo-Western Dead Man and in Murray's gorgeous performance in Lost in Translation, a still protagonist is surrounded by frenetic activity: The deadpan suggests a profound alienation from a world that makes no sense. In their new collaboration, Broken Flowers (Focus Features), Jarmusch and Murray have transcended their limitations. They've made a deadpan movie that quivers with feeling.
Broken Flowers is Jarmusch's most conventionally entertaining film, but it's still visually rigorous, swimming in pregnant silences, and un-filled-in in a way that's tantalizing. The movie is a haunted meditation on solipsism that's full of extraneous life, that hints at a world elsewhere. Murray is Don Johnston (that's John-ston, as he always has to remind people), a guy who made a pile of money in software but whose hobby was girlfriends, one after another. On the day his latest squeeze (Julie Delpy) decamps because he can't, you know, commit, Don sits watching The Private Life of Don Juan on his widescreen TV on his leather sofa in his huge, soullesss house; and then this aging Don Juan (or is it Don Juan-ston?) opens a letter from an ex of 20 years ago with no return address or postmark. It says Don has a 19-year-old son who has run away to find his father.
It's likely that a man like Don would "forget" about the letter, but his pal and neighbor Winston—an expansive Ethiopian played by that soulful chameleon Jeffrey Wright—won't let him. Winston lives in a house that's brimming with kids and pets and stuff. He also has a passion for solving old-fashioned Sherlock Holmesian mysteries. For all kinds of reasons, Winston pushes Don to go out into the world and find the letter writer. He even books the airline tickets, motels, and rental cars. He orders Don to bring flowers.
Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Frances Conroy, and Sharon Stone play the recipients of those flowers. What a group, huh? They respond to Don's surprise visits in different ways, but every sad, awkward, and bitterly funny meeting gives Don a glimpse of someone he damaged, a life he didn't build, a love forsaken.
Sharon Stone is impossibly delightful. She plays Laura, a widow who organizes closets for a living—a "together" activity if ever there was one. Yet there's something heartbreaking about that cheerful façade, about her obliviousness to the underlying mess and to the nymphet tendencies of her daughter (named Lolita, and buoyantly played by Alex Dziena) who parades before Don in the buff. That's an example of Jarmusch's technique: He takes an obvious joke and lets it hang until you squirm. That's also a dividend of his noncommittal style. He's king of the have-it-both-ways, of the funny and the forlorn.
Conroy is Dora, a former hippie love child who's now a fragile, neurasthenic prisoner of pre-fab McMansions that seem to mock her utopian dreams. The camera holds on her pinched features, and on her look of dread at the feelings that Don elicits—and then we see a snapshot of her easy, happy, Earth-mother young self and want to cry. Her most vivid scene, a dinner with Don and her real-estate husband (Christopher McDonald, who's peerless at this sort of hearty insincerity), is an essay in agony—screamingly funny agony. This is familiar ground—Alexander Payne mined it in About Schmidt. But in Broken Flowers, there's a sense of mystery, a feeling of souls struggling beneath the too-placid surface.
Lange plays Carmen, an animal therapist, apparently in hiding from the verbal deception of humans and protected by a hotcha (lesbian?) guard-dog receptionist (Chloe Sevigny). It's a troubling sequence, made more troubling by the way in which Lange has aged. I'm afraid it has come to this with regard to actresses these days: You think, "Nature? Cosmetic surgery? Bad cosmetic surgery?" Only her plastic surgeon knows for sure. But until we have sexual parity (Why should Murray be credible with Julie Fucking Delphy?), we're going to have to grapple with the problem of great actresses whose faces have gone slightly haywire. It's not an issue for the still-youngish Tilda Swinton, whose rural biker-chick Penny is an essay in rage. Her encounter with Murray's Don is ferociously brief.
There's something a tad egocentric about Broken Flowers'scenario. We'd like to think we left a mark on our ex-lovers, but most if not all are probably fully engaged by their present lives and glad to be rid of us. As glimpses of unfulfilled dreams and roads not taken, though, these scenes are small miracles of pain and longing. They have a comic surface and a riptide of despair. When Don passes young men in airports or on the street, they hold his gaze. The world is full of sons he never knew. In the last scene, there's an encounter with a kid played by an amazingly hypersensitive young actor named Mark Webber (last seen in Todd Solondz's Storytelling and the sadly unseen Winter Solstice) that is as momentous in its monosyllables as anything Jarmusch has done.
This is the crowning performance in what I call Bill Murray's Loneliness Trilogy, which consists of Broken Flowers, Lost in Translation, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. In his melancholy, he's funny; in his funniness, he's at sea: The ironic hipster clown has become God's loneliest man. Jarmusch holds on Murray's face—and, in truth, it's not the face of a great actor. In some ways, Murray is still an amateur. As an actor, he's not fully broken in: His features don't always conform to his emotions. But that clearly resonates with Jarmusch, who doesn't go for emoters. Nothing can be too plain.