In an age in which most of his peers have been Botoxed into an android-like state of homogeneity, Bill Murray's dapper decay has taken on an almost heroic quality. Lately, Murray's career has become an endless succession of characters in mid-life crises, and in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, his physical imperfections and telltale signs of aging—the rapidly retreating hairline, blotchy skin, weak chin, prominent wattle, and lips so thin as to be imperceptible—convey eloquent, melancholy volumes even when his stoic protagonist is silent, which happens to be most of the time.
Murray and Jarmusch, two modern masters of minimalism, triumphantly join forces in Broken Flowers, a bittersweet tour de force about a wealthy, deeply depressed lothario (Murray) who receives a mysterious anonymous letter alerting him to the existence of a son he's never met. As the film begins, Murray has all but lost the will to live. After girlfriend Julie Delpy walks out on him, his sole lifeline to the outside world is his friendship with irrepressible neighbor Jeffrey Wright, an amateur sleuth who immediately spies in Murray's predicament an irresistible real-life mystery to be solved. Women remain the only mystery worth exploring for Murray, but Wright's enthusiasm proves infectious, and soon Murray embarks on a Wright-engineered fact-finding tour of ex-girlfriends to find the source of the letter, his son, and a lust for life that seemingly vanished long ago.
The old flames Murray visits—played by the formidable likes of Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, and Jessica Lange—initially come across as broad comic types: the NASCAR widow with a nymphette daughter straight out of Nabokov, the angry biker chick, the "pet communicator." But Jarmusch depicts each with such compassion that even the faintest trace of condescension disappears. In its own low-key manner, Broken Flowers is alive with an adult sexuality, an acute appreciation of the tantalizing erotic possibilities presented by an exquisitely bare calf or ankle. There's a real poignancy in watching Murray's emotional chill thaw from the heat generated by even the idea of romance, or at least its more libidinous evil twin, lust. Salvation and redemption may ultimately be beyond Murray's grasp. He's a Don Juan seemingly doomed to a lonely purgatory, but Broken Flowers derives enormous pathos out of his struggle to recapture what's left of his battered and weary soul.