With "Broken Flowers," Jim Jarmusch's sly, touching new film, Bill Murray reaffirms his status as the quietest comic actor in movies today. His voice barely rises above a murmur, and his face remains almost perfectly still, its slightest tics and flickers captured by Mr. Jarmusch's discreet, mostly stationary camera.
The stillness is appropriate, since at the start of the movie Mr. Murray's character, Don Johnston, seems to have arrived at a point of stasis in his life. We first see Don on the couch in his large, tastefully decorated suburban home. His latest girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), is in the midst of leaving him, an event Don greets with a resignation that looks a lot like indifference. He is surrounded by nice stuff - a big television, sleek furniture, a Mercedes sedan - and has plenty of money, having been some kind of computer entrepreneur before retiring. A movie (or a movie critic) more inclined toward psychologizing might suggest that Don was depressed. In any case, as he tips over on his couch and falls asleep, we can surmise that he is inert, at rest, not going anywhere in particular.
But "Broken Flowers," like some of Mr. Jarmusch's other movies, is a road picture, which sends its poker-faced hero on a journey across a nondescript American landscape into his own past. As Sherry is saying goodbye, a letter arrives, typed in red ink on pink stationery, informing Don that 20 years earlier, he fathered a son. The anonymous message, apparently from one of Don's former lovers, warns him that the boy may be looking for him.
Don's impulse is to do nothing, but his neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), has other ideas. Winston is Don's friend and also, in almost every way, his opposite. In contrast to the slothful bachelor next door, he is a hard-working family man, with a wife, five children and three jobs. He is also something of an amateur detective, convinced that with the right clues and sleuthing methods, Don can find the mother of his supposed son and the missing pieces of his own history.
And so Don sets off, for brief reunions with four women he used to know, who are played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. What he finds are possible clues - basketball hoops suggesting the presence of a male child; a typewriter sitting on a patch of unkempt lawn; various pink objects, including a bauble-encrusted cellphone - and also further puzzles. His welcome, as he shows up in a rented car with a bouquet of flowers, varies. At one house he finds warmth and a roll in the hay for old times' sake, but elsewhere he meets with awkwardness, suspicion and even a punch in the face.
Does he find what he was looking for? I can't really say, and only partly because I don't want to spoil the movie. Winston's belief that the truth can be known - about other people, about oneself - is an idea the movie respects but does not really endorse. We go to the theater expecting to see experience tied up in a neat, attractive package, but the best movies, the ones that insert themselves into our own experiences and ways of looking at life, frustrate that expectation.
"Broken Flowers" is certainly beautiful, as lilting and seductive as the music, by the Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke, that accompanies Don on his trip. Mr. Jarmusch's frames are full of odd, lovely details, and he has a rigorous visual wit reminiscent of classic cartoons and silent comedies.
He also has a teasing, literary sense of artifice. But he never goes for the obvious emotion or the easy disclosure, preferring elusiveness to exposition and tracking subtle shifts of mood rather than choreographing dramatic confrontations.
The emotions he uncovers are not always easy to name. Hovering around the edges of the frame - and playing across Mr. Murray's mouth and eyes - are longing, disappointment, bafflement and an earnest sense of wonder. As he goes off in search of the loose ends of his earlier romantic life, Don finds regret, but he also seems to be returning to the source of his fascination with women. Each of the actresses brings an indelible, eccentric individuality to the screen. We wish we could spend more time with them, or go back in time to see them with the younger Don.
The movie's title may imply the defeat of romance, but it is also a defense of romanticism - its own and Don's - as an approach to life that, while it may be flawed, is also generous. Don may be many things - a lost soul, a failure, a man adrift in his own life - but he is also, fundamentally, a lover, and "Broken Flowers" partakes of his chivalrous, gentlemanly spirit. Like a perfect, short-lived love affair, its pleasure is accompanied by a palpable sting of sorrow. It leaves you wanting more, which I mean entirely as a compliment.
"Broken Flowers" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sexual references and situations, nudity and profanity.