Of late, Bill Murray seems to be making a bit of a thing out of playing middle-aged men desperately searching for some kind of meaning in their lives. There was, of course, the almost depressingly bleak and lonely Lost in Translation, then the quirky The Life Aquatic and now this. As in that last film, Broken Flowers revolves around the discovery of a son he never knew existed and the resultant confusion about the state of his life.
If it weren’t for the fact that Murray is one of the most instantly lovable of all Hollywood stars – from his outings among the original line-up of Saturday Night Live, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, right up to his resurgence of the last couple of years – it would be tempting to suggest he’s getting typecast. Yet, with the sole exception of last year’s disappointing Garfield movie, for which he was, in any case, perfectly cast, his choice of roles in at least his last 10 movies have been impeccable – interesting, deep beneath a placid surface and wonderfully quirky to the last. When you’re doing something so well, why stop?
So here, after receiving an anonymous letter telling him an ex-girlfriend, of which there are many, had a son by him years ago, Murray sets out to track down his old flames and discover which of them is the mother of the child he never knew existed. His by now familiar hang-dog expression, the world-weary gaze and easy, droll humour are given at least as full a work-out as they were in Lost in Translation, yet despite being in places equally philosophical, this comes closer to the comedy for which Murray became famous than Sofia Coppola’s understated take on middle age. Which considering the director is odd indie hero Jim Jarmusch, is rather weird, as he’s not a man generally known for too much humour.
Jarmusch is often at his best when dealing with lone men trying to work out a problem, such as with the superb Ghost Dog and Dead Man, and here the existential ponderings of his often emotionless lead again prove a fruitful cinematic vein for him to mine. In Ghost Dog it was Forest Whittaker, in Dead Man Johnny Depp, and now, having cropped up in Jarmusch’s last film Coffee and Cigarettes, Murray gets to try and act without really doing much as well. The fact that American critics have already been suggesting Oscar nods should tell you all you need to know.
Jarmusch is usually not for everyone. Even when making a film about a hitman his pacing was relatively slow and the action intermittent at best. His critics often consider him pretentiously arty, yet here he has finally managed, thanks to Murray’s superb central performance and his top-notch supporting cast, to create something almost mainstream. Yet mainstream with an edge unlike that which you’ll find in your standard Hollywood fare. It’s a different, more wistful approach to filmmaking that could well prove to be a welcome break from the usual explosions, guns and action. Certainly well worth checking out.