Bill Murray has two expressions: bored and cynical. He uses them both all the time, looking like an old baby spitting up sour milk, and the critics call it acting. Jim Jarmusch is a low-key, independent writer-director with one style—truncated vignettes like esoteric short stories, strung together with no narrative coherence and passed off as a movie—and the critics call him iconic. Now both of them have combined their limitations in a dour, empty little picture called Broken Flowers, and the critics will predictably call it genius. I’m still pinching myself to stay awake.
This is the kind of flick that usually turns up at film festivals, gets great reviews and nobody ever sees. To say Mr. Jarmusch’s films don’t appeal to all tastes is like saying Paris Hilton is not every mature woman’s role model. He’s directed 15 films since 1980, and not one of them has been a commercial hit. No wonder. In all of them, things never happen and nothing means anything—a pessimistic but acceptable philosophy for life, perhaps, but movies are not life. They must move, titillate, engage, provoke, perplex, annoy or—God forbid—even entertain. The one thing they must not do—have no right to do—is lie there and bore us to death. In life, when nothing happens and nothing means anything, you can always pretend it would make nice, existential New Yorker fiction. In movies, when nothing happens and nothing means anything, the pretentiousness becomes infuriating.
When Broken Flowers opens, we sit through every step-by-step minute of how a letter gets mailed, stamped, processed and delivered by the United States Post Office. This is filmmaking? The mail in question is an anonymous message on pink notepaper addressed to Don Johnston (Mr. Murray), an aging, burned-out couch potato with no interest in life beyond sitting blank-faced in a dark room watching old movies. Don used to have a penchant for younger girls, but he no longer has enough energy to hold on to one, including the lovely Julie Delpy, who walks out on him in the opening scene. Don is too far gone to care. He yawns and opens the pink envelope. No signature. No return address. Just a message that he’s got a son somewhere by some former lover he hasn’t seen in 19 years. The question is, which one? Apparently there have been several, and we’re about to meet them all.
Although Don displays not even the remotest curiosity, the mysterious letter and the identity of the woman he impregnated galvanize Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a computer nerd and amateur sleuth with five kids who lives next-door. Winston organizes addresses, road maps, rental cars, plane tickets and motel reservations, and the reluctant Don shuffles off to revisit his old flames, played by guest stars whose presence adds some snap to the lame script. First stop is the good-natured Laura (Sharon Stone), a professional “closet organizer” with no sons, but a nubile teenage daughter named Lolita. (These are the jokes, see; even the name Don Johnston is a middle-aged spin on Don Juan.) When Lolita parades in front of Don stark naked to arouse his interest, he can barely keep his eyes open, and we’re not talking jet lag.
Next comes Dora (Frances Conroy, in a change of pace from her role as the scattered funeral-parlor matriarch on Six Feet Under.) Dora lives in a subdivision of characterless cookie-cutter homes and sells prefab real estate. She has a sterile house, a sterile husband, a sterile life, and eats unappetizing and disgustingly sterile health food; she also has no children. Third, there is Carmen (Jessica Lange), a cold animal shrink who turned lesbian and now seems to be having an affair with her secretary (Chloë Sevigny). Fourth comes Penny (Tilda Swinton), an unwelcoming goth biker’s moll who lives in the woods with some vicious bikers who give Don a black eye and leave him unconscious in a ditch. There’s a fifth woman named Michelle on his list, but she’s in the cemetery.
Don reacts to all of these representatives from his past with the animated perplexity of a man experiencing mild airplane turbulence. He returns home still not knowing if he’s a father or not, but now he starts eyeing strange 19-year-old teenagers with a seed of potential curiosity. Who knows? Maybe a lost son will show up at his back door looking for him.
And that, as Peggy Lee used to sing, is all there is. The women who drop by for flavor in this soggy pudding have little to say and nothing to do. The tales are utterly dispensable and the characters are merely props to move the narrative along to a 105-minute running time. With no emotional conflict, no character revelation and only minimalist acting and episodic direction, Broken Flowers is as flat as Bill Murray’s motel-room beds. While it would be interesting to watch an aging lothario search for an identity, then come to life and find the core of his soul when he discovers fatherhood, I had a hard time locating any such profundity here.
Bill Murray’s pouting is getting on my nerves. Two years ago, I thought his blank, hollow look worked to his advantage in Lost in Translation, but the general public didn’t agree. (I can’t tell you how many debates I’ve had with people who saw that movie because of the reviews and hated it thoroughly.) As an American actor filming a commercial in Japan with too much time on his hands in a glass tomb of an Asian hotel, his catatonic performance was logical. The role of Don is the same role that he played in Lost in Translation, but the only operative logic in Broken Flowers is nervy self-absorption.
It is possible, of course, that Mr. Jarmusch means to suggest that a walking zombie—bereft of ambition, disconnected from the outer world—is a sort of existentialist equivalent of supercool. Maybe. Don is just too beyond cool to allow himself even the slightest enthusiasm. (He made his money in computers, but doesn’t even own one.) But this movie that showcases his narcolepsy is as dead as he is. Broken Flowers is a film of fatal ambivalence, and Bill Murray is an emotional zero.
Teens Are Scary
The only reason to suffer through Pretty Persuasion, a vile depiction of high school as a microcosm of social and moral corruption, is the opportunity it provides to watch the beautiful, gifted and versatile young actress Evan Rachel Wood play an unsalvageable bitch. Here she is, the adorable über-teen princess from the great TV series Once and Again, playing Kimberly Joyce, a brilliant and talented 15-year-old sophomore in an exclusive private school in Beverly Hills for wealthy, privileged predators in training. Pretty in pink cashmere and playing the title role in the school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, Kimberly is the idol of her set: perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect waistline, a record-breaking I.Q. and a born leader. But Kimberly is a nasty piece of work—a wicked, manipulative, conniving, virulent and pretentious little snob with the face of an angel, the mouth of a sailor and the mindset of a Machiavellian whore.
When Kimberly is sacked from the Anne Frank role for making racist slurs to a Jewish student, she seeks revenge against her innocent drama teacher (Ron Livingston) by maliciously accusing him of sexual abuse, recruiting both her best friend and her protégée, a naïve Arab girl who wants to be popular so her classmates won’t call her a terrorist, into testifying in court that they were molested, too. Vowing to rid the planet of all the “stupid, annoying, worthless people” who get in her way, she wreaks violence and mayhem on the lives of everyone she knows, using every ruse in her book of tricks to get her way, especially a juicy and apparently unsurpassed talent for oral intercourse that she’s happy to share with all ages and genders. The trial makes lurid headlines and becomes a media sensation, tarnishing reputations and heaping disgrace and scandal on everyone while Kimberly pretends the pain she’s inflicted will be perfect “material” for her future acting career. Everyone is ruined, but Kimberly ends up on TV.
Up to this point, I had a grudging admiration for this valentine-bow vixen’s uncluttered vision. Plotting her diabolic schemes, commanding the troops in her elaborate game of conspiracy, she’s old enough to know exactly what she’s doing, she’s too young to care, and she gets off on the threat of the consequences. The movie falls apart when she finally betrays her own convictions and says, “Fame is fleeting, but heartbreak lasts forever.” In the final scene, this teenage Lady Macbeth shows the strain of remorse as a tear trickles slowly down her perfect porcelain cheek and freezes as her eyes turn dark as marble. It’s the last shot of Jean Seberg, staring into the mirror at the end of Bonjour Tristesse. Like the rest of Pretty Persuasion, everything reminds you of some other movie. What a letdown. The director, Marcos Siega, doesn’t seem to know that the most important rule in the game of revenge is never feel compassion.
Blackmail, nudity, drugs, lesbian lust, teenage suicide, the war in Iraq, the self-serving duplicity of the press—this movie’s got everything. It’s also got filthy dialogue, cheesy camerawork, nauseating art direction and some comic relief that backfires—especially the really ghastly, over-the-top performance by James Woods as Kimberly’s obnoxious, anti-Semitic slob of a father. Screeching and masturbating incessantly while engaging in phone sex, gulping down moo shoo pork while insulting Jews with bad Yiddish jokes, his eccentricity just turns moronic. For a Beverly Hills industrialist, his excessive vulgarity makes trailer trash look downright refined.
Many sobering, provocative issues are raised in Pretty Persuasion and not one is treated seriously. The whole thing has the weight of a teen-market series on MTV. Whenever a project this messy takes on more than it can handle, loses its grip and fails this miserably, someone always calls it a “satire.” Inevitably, this one will be compared with everything from Alexander Payne’s wonderful political spoof Election to Cruel Intentions, the 1999 teenage remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Does it reflect the reality of what modern kids are really like? I doubt it. The market it hopes to lure is teenagers with deep pockets looking for guilty pleasures. But in the long haul, the only lure you’ll remember is Evan Rachel Wood. Hearing her celebrate multiculturalism with the line “At least my dad isn’t a money-grabbing Jew shyster” and watching her rise from the naked loins of a Jewish schoolmate, wipe her mouth and prattle on about circumcised penises—I tell you, these horrors can be unsettling. But I guess it’s more fun for a young actress with this much range to play damaged girls in films that are shocking and edgy than to play Junior Miss—and Ms. Wood does it with a style that is natural, believable and wrenching.
For a more reassuring kind of child, check out the Canadian film Saint Ralph. Set in the 50’s in Hamilton, Ontario, this beautifully bittersweet little film by Toronto-based director and marathon runner Michael McGowan takes you on an inspiring journey with an unexpected but likeable hero named Ralph (Adam Butcher), a boy with the temerity to believe he can make a miracle happen against all odds. Ralph is a ninth-grade student on the verge of becoming an orphan. His father is dead and his mother is critically ill in the hospital. When she lapses into a coma during one of the little boy’s visits, it seems that only a miracle will save her. So Ralph sets out to fulfill his dream with irrational determination and grit. The resulting film never runs out of surprises.
The exact nature of Ralph’s miraculous endeavor gels when he’s disciplined for one of his latest frisky escapades by the sour, punitive headmaster, Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), who forces him to join the school’s cross-country running team. At first the unathletic lad accepts his punishment grudgingly, but as the days pass he becomes motivated and energized by it. The coach, Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), recognizes a talent for running that nobody else sees and decides to train the boy privately. Ralph is resolved to excel, concluding that if he can perform an impossible feat—winning the Boston Marathon—perhaps it will count as a miracle. So, armed with little more than faith, love and determination, Ralph sets out to win the famed race. Like Seabiscuit and Cinderella Man, he’s got the audience cheering him on, hurdle by hurdle.
Writer-director McGowan has created a wonderfully sympathetic lead character. Gangly and awkward, Ralph epitomizes the unlikely underdog we cannot help but root for. The script carefully balances the opposing forces of pessimism and encouragement as Ralph’s friends and foes alike watch his progress. Mr. Pinsent is superbly mean-spirited as the headmaster anticipating Ralph’s defeat, while Mr. Scott is strong and stoic as the Nietzsche-reading, forward-thinking Father Hibbert, who metes out his encouragement carefully but wisely. When Ralph wins Hamilton’s Around the Bay race, it begins to look as though the miracle might happen after all. I cannot reveal more, but I can tell you that without being overly sentimental, Saint Ralph lovingly reminds us of what it’s like to dream big—and go for the long shots. You can’t help but identify wholeheartedly with Ralph. Bravery and optimism combine as a dejected child’s desperate attempts to prove he is capable of mastering something win the heart. The director squeezes humor from the most piercing situations, yet there is substantial poignancy, too, and with Ralph’s struggle as a metaphor, the film offers hope for the future despite the challenges of the past.