Broken Flowers 

The Big Thaw: Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray overcome detachment in Broken Flowers. Plus, John Singleton's Four Brothers.

Though it was directed by longtime indie icon Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, the Memphis-set Mystery Train) and was the recipient of the Grand Prix (i.e., second place) at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Broken Flowers might be most notable as a key step in the ongoing evolution of Bill Murray.

Murray might be America's most beloved comic actor. He got his start as Chevy Chase's replacement on Saturday Night Live and went on to stardom with wisecracking or otherwise flamboyant turns in classic broad comedies such as Caddyshack and Stripes. But over the past decade, Murray has evolved into an art-film object of contemplation, his now-deadpan visage as expressively inexpressive as Buster Keaton's once was.

Setting aside Wes Anderson's listless The Life Aquatic, Broken Flowers completes a trilogy of sorts for Murray as a left-of-cinematic-center protagonist. In Anderson's Rushmore and Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Murray was an avuncular figure. The identification in those films was on the younger leads, Jason Schwartzman's Max Fisher in Rushmore and Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte in Lost in Translation, both characters essentially stand-ins for the films' respective directors. In those movies, Murray was idealized as a symbol of experience that ratified the younger characters' alienation and embodied each film's cross-generational utopianism.

Broken Flowers isn't quite as romantic as Rushmore or Lost in Translation. Jarmusch is a generation older than Anderson or Coppola. At 52, he's only a couple of years younger than Murray, and in his film it's finally Murray's character, aging lothario Don Johnston, with whom the camera identifies. Jarmusch (who worked with Murray in one segment of his short-film compilation Coffee & Cigarettes) has found the perfect vehicle in Murray, whose recent style of detached cool rhymes precisely with the director's own aesthetic.

Broken Flowers is ostensibly a mystery. As the film opens, Murray's Johnston, who built a fortune in the computer industry, sits in a bored stupor as his latest, much younger, girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out on him. But the same day he receives a letter - with a smudged postmark and no signature or return address - from a woman in his past who claims he has a 19-year-old son he never knew about.

Prompted by his mystery-novel-loving neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright in a warm, casual, deeply enjoyable turn), Johnston reluctantly sets out on a trip to locate the five women who could have fathered his child and to look for clues.

Despite the cross-country trajectory, Broken Flowers is as elliptical and minimalist as Jarmusch's other films. Even so, the common suggestion that Broken Flowers could be the director's most commercial film may be accurate. (At least it's as commercial as a film dedicated to obscure French post-new-wave director Jean Eustache is likely to get.) For starters, it's in color (not at all a given with this director), but more importantly, it's packed with recognizable stars, including past paramours played by actresses such as Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange. In fact, this may be the first Jarmusch movie that won't be primarily identified as a Jarmusch movie.

But it's also a movie that, in its settings and characters, witnesses Jarmusch pushing at the boundaries of his perpetual weakness: a professional hipsterism that sometimes lapses into subcultural sentimentality. Rather than stay in his comfort zone, Broken Flowers is Jarmusch's travelogue through modern America, with Johnston's ex-girlfriends embodying a wide range of American life: a racecar driver's widow in a red-state small town, a suburban realtor, a rural washout, and a limousine-liberal-ish new-age professional.

This type of journey might be liberating for a director usually more at home in urban dives, but Jarmusch seems as uncomfortable as his protagonist on this trip, recoiling from the variety of present-day America like Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka before a group of children, and what he presents is a bleak, sometimes grotesque vision. Jarmusch can't help but make a mockery of suburbia, where Frances Conroy's realtor lives in a subdivision called Pleasant Estates and makes her living selling "quality prefab homes." Jessica Lange's striving "animal communicator," serving a string of no-doubt wealthy clients, seems to be living a similarly soulless existence. And Jarmusch (and Johnston) seem simply terrified of Tilda Swinton's backwoods world. Only Sharon Stone, vivacious as the small-town widow with a sexually precocious teen daughter, challenges Johnston and Jarmusch for control of the movie.

But maybe Jarmusch's alienation is part of the plan; maybe the character's journey is as much the director's. For most of the movie, as Johnston staggers reluctantly from woman to woman, place to place, Jarmusch matches him with a series of long, still takes broken up by fadeouts. But at the end, as Johnston's torpor is broken, detachment gives way to desperation, physical stillness to action, and Jarmusch's heretofore stationary camera takes flight as well in a swirling, fluttering motion that might be the most moving moment in the director's oeuvre. In this instant, the resolution Broken Flowers finds - the act of overcoming detachment - may be more important than the one Johnston seeks.

- Chris Herrington

Four Brothers, based very loosely on the 1965 John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder, is set in the modern day, substituting lawless Texas for a mostly lawless Detroit. Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan) is a sweet old lady shopping for a Thanksgiving turkey in a corner market. Two thugs appear suddenly and gun the clerk and Evelyn down. Looks like an open-and-shut case of armed robbery. Or is it?

Evelyn, a tireless foster parent to dozens of children over the years, adopted the four that nobody else would take: ex-hockey-goon leader Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), unrepentant ladies' man Angel (Tyrese Gibson), wannabe rock star Jack (Garrett Hedlund), and Jeremiah (Outkast's Andre Benjamin), a business and family man who seems to be the only one of the four who hasn't retained the rough edges of his upbringing. Two black and two white, these four characters, now adults, are united not by blood but by love for each other and the shared need to find out what really happened to their adoptive mother. The facts just don't add up.

As the Mercer boys start to investigate Evelyn's murder, it doesn't take long for more violence to erupt, and it becomes clear that this brood shoots first and asks questions later, if at all. In this vision of modern Detroit, director John Singleton (who also produced Memphis director Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow) orchestrates extreme violence anywhere and everywhere: a restaurant, a high school basketball game, a city street. There is, as in our current political climate, no negotiating with terrorists. Likewise, there seems to be no trusting cops (one of them played by Hustle & Flow's Terrence Howard). Not only is there only a tepid investigation into Evelyn's death, one of the cops assigned to the case is crooked and on the payroll of local gang lord Victor Sweet (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who may or may not be behind the murder.

Singleton's direction is sure and strong, and he handles intimate, brotherly scenes as deftly as the action sequences (particularly one nail-biting icy-road car chase in a blistering snow). But sometimes the exposition fails us, and we don't quite know where in the story we are or how we got there.

The performances are uniformly solid, particularly the less experienced Benjamin and Hedlund, who provide the few Mercer morals, and Flanagan, whose one scene and few flashbacks break our hearts for her loss. But I can't help but think she would be mortified by the blood shed on her behalf or by how her sons turned out.

I don't mind excessive violence as long as it is purposeful. In Singleton's superior Boyz N the Hood, it makes a social point. In Pulp Fiction, violence is parodied. In Sin City, it is aestheticized. But here the violence only seems to prove Fiddler on the Roof's point that if everyone went by "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," there would be a bunch of blind, toothless people around.

Four Brothers, unlike previous Singleton efforts, is all bite and no sight. n

- Bo List

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