The Deadpan Don Juan: Murray Takes Humor Tips

Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, from his own screenplay, received the Grand Prix (second prize after the Gold Palm) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This meant that it had been widely reviewed before I had a chance to see it at a special screening sponsored by the Directors Guild of America and the Museum of the Moving Image. I had the strange thought, as I was watching the film, that Mr. Jarmusch’s vision of America might seem more persuasive to viewers abroad than to viewers here. Still, it kept me absorbed all the way through, especially the collaboration between acting auteur Bill Murray and Mr. Jarmusch in virtually every frame of the film. Together, they strike deeper chords of regret and remorse than I’ve found in any of Mr. Jarmusch’s 15 films—over a quarter-century of relentlessly independent filmmaking.

Mr. Murray has been funnier in the past, particularly in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), Frank Oz’s What About Bob? (1991) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Having mastered the skills of comic understatement in his skits on Saturday Night Live in the 70’s, Mr. Murray was thereafter dependent in the movies on the quality and frequency of the other characters’ straight-man lines to set up his deadpan responses and give them feature-length leverage. Mr. Murray has few such opportunities in Broken Flowers, but he makes the most of them, slowly building up the necessary gradations in his reactions to create a full-bodied characterization with unaccustomed pathos.

As I watched the unfolding of Mr. Jarmusch’s sociological improbabilities from one fragmented episode to another, I began to discern a pattern of abstraction similar to the Elizabethan Comedy of Humours. In this context, the “humour” that Mr. Murray’s retired Don Juan character, Don Johnston, projects is the emotion-crippling and soul-destroying stasis of sheer boredom. Indeed, when we first see him, he can barely stay awake to object half-heartedly to the departure of his current girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) because of his failure to commit to a life together with children. That Sherry is gorgeous in a conspicuously leggy sort of way introduces the presence of lechery without love in Don’s relations with women. Sherry is never seen again, but her name comes up several times in connection with a letter in a pink envelope that arrives on the day of her departure.

In a pre-credit documentary-style montage of the various postal assembly lines and delivery systems sending the pink envelope on its way to Don’s doorstep, the industrial dynamism of the process forms a deadpan contrast to Don’s lethargy at the other end. Sherry notices the pink envelope as she’s leaving, and she even makes a rueful joke about it probably having been sent by one of Don’s old flames seeking another chance at a fling.

All the while, Don has been screening a videocassette copy of Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), the last film to star Douglas Fairbanks. But Don can’t stay awake even to watch the amorous exploits of his spiritual namesake. With a farcical motion of terminal boredom, he topples onto the couch into a long sleep.

But why is Don seemingly so weary of life, and to such a pathological extent? In a Q. and A. after the screening, Mr. Jarmusch declared with some vehemence that he was opposed to inserting backstories into his screenplays to explain why his characters behave as they do. Citing the stuff that Mom and Dad did in one’s childhood as an explanation for one’s adult behavior (or misbehavior) is clearly anathema to Mr. Jarmusch. This anti-Freudian attitude is consistent with my perception of Don’s anomie as a behavioral abstraction rather than the result of a coherent character analysis.

But such abstraction is a tricky proposition in the cinema, where the critics tend to give almost as much attention to the background as the foreground. (Hence the complaints of some reviewers over the unlikeliness of a retired computer magnate like Don choosing to live in some hole-in-the-wall town.) His next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) works in computers too, but on a much lower income level, since he supposedly needs to work three jobs to support his wife and five children. I suppose it’s politically incorrect to note, as few reviewers have, that Winston is black (or, more technically, an Ethiopian-American), as are most people in the town. I wish that rich Americans were as enlightened as Don on racial matters.

Still, it makes practical sense for a screenwriter to make Don comparatively wealthy and retired so that he can find the time and resources to deal with the contents of the letter in the aforementioned pink envelope. What it says, basically, is that Don impregnated one of his old girlfriends many years back and that his 19-year-old son is now looking for his father. The letter is unsigned, which inclines Don to ignore the whole matter. But when he confides in Winston—the only person in town with whom Don seems to be on speaking terms—Winston turns out to be a congenital busybody with professional expertise in finding people and addresses on the Internet. He charts out a detailed itinerary for Don to check up on the four women with whom he was intimate around the period specified in the letter.

One feels a sense of stingy contrivance in the presence of Winston, his warm and generous wife Mona (Heather Alicia Simms), who is constantly feeding Don and pleasantly flirting with him, and their five adorable children. The unthreatening atmosphere they provide enables Mr. Jarmusch to unleash all of his eventually malicious satire on the series of four reunions that Don embarks on with women from his steamy and seamy past.

The reunions begin on a deceptively light note with the widowed Laura (Sharon Stone), who proves ready to resume her sexual relationship with Don, and Lolita (Alexis Dziena), her nubile daughter, who almost frightens Don away by cavorting in the nude until her mother comes home. After a night in Laura’s welcoming arms, Don travels on to the suburban mansion that Dora (Frances Conroy) now shares with her dull realtor husband, Ron (Christopher McDonald), who provides the richest source of Babbitty “straight” lines that Don will encounter on his increasingly troubled journey. The three-way dinner scene is even more unpleasant than it is funny; Dora and Ron turn out to be childless, and so the search for Don’s son must go on.

Next up is Carmen (Jessica Lange), an “animal communicator”—a form of pet psychic who doesn’t claim to read the minds of animals, but rather who listens to them when they choose to speak. Her demonstration with a hilariously expressive cat gets almost as big a laugh from the audience as the brief conversation that a client holds with his pet rabbit. Carmen’s “assistant” (Chloë Sevigny) is another provocatively leggy charmer, but she is much cooler to Don than all the other women he’s encountered. When Carmen brushes off his suggestion of a date, and when the assistant insinuatingly interrupts Carmen’s conversation with Don, he begins to get the picture. His suspicions are confirmed when the assistant dumps into his car the bouquet of pink flowers that he purposively brings to all of his meetings with former mistresses.

Don hits rock bottom when he finds Penny (Tilda Swinton) living in a rural shack with bikers. When he asks if she ever had a son, Penny gets so angry that she slams the door on him—bringing her biker boyfriend out from the barn to deliver a knockout blow to Don. Much later, Don finds himself sprawled on the backseat of his car, which has been driven out into the middle of a cornfield. Officially, his quest is over—but is it? There’s a last-minute occurrence that leaves the film awash in narrative ambiguity, but not without an awareness of climactic and cathartic self-discovery.

Broken Flowers bears the burden of the audience’s somewhat conflicting expectations regarding the impromptu Jarmusch brand of deadpan humor and the more carefully prepared and structured Murray brand. Mr. Jarmusch’s admirers look for him to be more improvisatory; Mr. Murray’s look for him to be funnier. Both men have had to sacrifice some of their individuality in order to bring a story of many moods home safely. I think they’ve succeeded, for the most part. Certainly, it can be argued that none of Don’s former girlfriends have accomplished anything particularly edifying since their break-ups with him. Laura has become a closet arranger; Dora a boring housewife; Carmen an “animal communicator”; and Penny a backwoods biker’s woman.

The film is beautifully photographed by Frederick Elmes with an appropriately grayish eloquence that, as much as anything else, conveys Mr. Jarmusch’s bleak view of the American landscape and of the possibilities of American life in general. One of the most privileged moments in the film occurs when Don visits the grave of the girlfriend who died in the car accident. He truly mourns her—not only for her silent intimation of his own mortality, but also for the memory of how she mocked his lifelong indecisiveness. At that moment, he becomes aware—perhaps for the first time—that he’s been on a fool’s errand, searching for a possibly nonexistent son whom he can never compensate for all the lost years that he failed to make a commitment to anyone. There is much to like in Broken Flowers, not the least being the opportunity for vital actresses like Ms. Delpy, Ms. Stone, Ms. Conroy, Ms. Lange, Ms. Sevigny and Ms. Swinton to cut loose without a sigh or a whimper.

Family Business

Phil Morrison’s Junebug, from a screenplay by Angus MacLachlan, turns out to be one of the more engaging manifestations of the surging tide of regionalism in American independent cinema. Mr. Morrison, 37, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., has made his first feature film from the generous and enlightened point of view of a Southern expatriate living in Greenwich Village who chooses on this occasion not to renounce his roots. Nor does he caricature the more cosmopolitan types among whom he now lives by making them act superior or talk snobbishly to the people he left behind in the South.

Yet at the heart of the film is an exaggeration on Mr. Morrison’s part of the ideological chasm that separates North from South, blue state from red state, urban from rural. There are great differences, to be sure, but I don’t entirely share the self-congratulatory reaction that Mr. Morrison received from Sundance reviewers, who were moved by a scene in which the director embraces that old-time religion through his screen alter ego, George (Alessandro Nivolo), who has returned to his rural birthplace in North Carolina from Chicago with his sophisticated art-collector wife, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz). She happens to be visiting the area largely to persuade an old coot of a local artist to sell all his works for a regional display.

George’s blue-collar family gives Madeleine a very mixed reception: Mom (Celia Weston) is pointedly frosty; Dad (Scott Wilson) is silently subdued; George’s brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie) is sullenly resentful of George’s success in Chicago; and Johnny’s pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams) is irrepressibly friendly and welcoming toward Madeleine, seeing her as an impressive woman of the world who can teach her a thing or two. Ms. Adams pretty much steals the show by seeming to ignore the awkwardness of the situation with her voluble enthusiasm over Madeleine’s exalted presence. The sheer energy she brings to the role makes her the film’s protagonist almost by default. The emotional negativity exuded by Ashley’s husband and in-laws makes the well-meaning Madeleine seem more intrusive than she ever intended to be. By trying sincerely “to be friends” with her husband’s family, Madeleine succeeds only in antagonizing them, simply because of her higher social and economic position. Indeed, Johnny is so full of self-loathing that he rewards Madeleine’s polite overtures to him by making a crude physical pass at her, causing her to flee in panic.

George’s actions are the most curious of all. He seems content to let his wife fend for herself in a largely hostile environment without even trying to smooth the path for her. Even the celebrated church-choir sequence, in which George returns dramatically to his roots, serves to distance himself from his own wife, who looks on with some surprise at a side of George she never knew in Chicago. Eventually, all the simmering tensions explode into tragedy and melodrama as Ashley loses her baby and all her ebullience, and Johnny angrily socks George out of a fruitless frustration over his own failures. The moral isn’t exactly that you can’t go home again, but that long separations complicated by one-sided success stories are poor guarantors of family harmony. North and South have less to do with it than up and down. Still, all the acting is so good, and the setting is so rightly observed, that Junebug emerges as one of the best pictures of the year.

Don Roos, Auteur

Don Roos’ Happy Endings, from his own screenplay, serves as a relaunching pad for the magical talents of Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jude, a good-time girl whom we first meet in a karaoke bar, later in a rich man’s bed, still later in an abortion clinic, and finally on a triumphantly poignant note singing a torch song in a fancy supper club. (Who knew the girl could sing?) She has received special afterthought billing in a 10-character ensemble that spans the elective affinities and procreative choices for men and women in an increasingly chaotic world of bisexual experiences, sperm donors, adoptions, abortions and all sorts of living arrangements.

In this brave new world of cinematic experimentation, to a degree that was considered unthinkable until very recently, Mr. Roos stands out as a 21st-century auteur who, with only three films to his credit, has managed to bridge the gulf between a gay sensibility and the increasingly more accepting straight world. Actually, I inadvertently left him off my list of auteurs to watch last week because I hadn’t seen Happy Endings, which bears more resemblance to the trail-blazing bisexual antics of The Opposite of Sex (1998) than to the more conventionally romantic comedy of Bounce (2000). And frankly, I wasn’t sure if Mr. Roos had any other films to his credit.

He has a way with casting, though, blending the varied talents and personalities of Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Gallecki, William Lee Scott and Ivan Sergei in the Opposite of Sex, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Joe Morton, Natasha Henstridge, Tony Goldwyn and Johnny Galecki in Bounce. Now, in Happy Endings, he is reunited with Lisa Kudrow as the pivotal character, Mamie, a guidance counselor in an abortion clinic. She is ably abetted by Tom Arnold as the widower Frank, whom Mamie eventually marries; Jesse Bradford as Nicky, Mamie’s ex-lover, a failed documentary filmmaker; Bobby Cannavale as Javier, her Mexican masseur; Laura Dern as Pam and Sarah Clarke as Diane, a lesbian couple who may or may not have adopted a child with the donated sperm of Gil (David Sutcliffe), the gay lover of Charley (Steve Coogan).

A given in this carnival of choice and rejection is that all these Angelenos belong to a privileged class of perpetual pleasure-seekers. It’s a bit funny, when you think about it: One of the recurring complaints about the old Hollywood movies was that their devil-may-care characters so seldom had to worry about making a living. Now, proudly independent non-studio filmmakers are discovering the advantages of leisure-class characters, especially for comedies of the heart and skin.

In any event, Mr. Roos has attained a new audacity in stylized distancing by commenting at the end of many scenes with a half-screen box of text full of backstory and/or frontstory. Hence, after the film opens with an unknown woman in a blue dress running sobbing through the woods onto the highway, where she is hit by a speeding car, a box on the right half of the screen identifies her as Mamie and tells us that she hasn’t died in the crash, and also that nobody, in fact, will die in the movie because it’s a “comedy, sort of.”

The same scene is later repeated in context. Meanwhile, by then the little boxes have revealed the pasts of some characters and anticipated the futures of others. We are warned that Jude will be hurt more than others, and Mr. Roos is true to his word as Ms. Gyllenhaal soars in the end on the wings of song to a sad but brave self-affirmation. As the French say, it is to make the spine tingle.

The Deadpan Don Juan:  Murray Takes Humor Tips