If the last 50 years of Western culture can be summed up with one facial expression, it’s the deadpan. History is unclear about its origins (although some cite Buster Keaton), and its exact mechanics remain mysterious. As an emotive gesture, it’s uniquely contextual: a work in negative space, a non-reaction to a reaction-begging event. It’s a look for a seen-it-all age and, as the default pose for a generation of would-be ironists, the most debased gesture in current usage, a gimmick for instant cool and wised-up superiority. But even now, on the face of a master, the deadpan can still bloom with life—revealing longing, love, sympathy, desire, or terror, all while establishing an odd kind of complicity with the viewer, an almost metaphysical acknowledgement that audience, character, and actor are in this thing together. A world-class deadpan takes more than acting ability and it’s best borne by a face with a story of its own. And if there’s one single living virtuoso of this strange and dangerous form, it is without a doubt Bill Murray.
From the start in the Seventies Chicago comedy scene, Murray was known for his strangely kinetic stoneface. As he moved from “Saturday Night Live” to film, Hollywood gave him an ever more splendid array of spectacles to underreact to. From an actor roommate’s wig-doffing reveal on a daytime soap in Tootsie (“That is one nutty hospital,” he quipped) to the giant marauding Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (“There’s something you don’t see every day”), Murray’s shrugging, unflappable, crypto-stoner mien—an almost Zen-like acceptance of all—formed a linchpin of late-century American comedy.
But it wasn’t until the ascendance of next-generation hipsters like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola that Murray got to refine this minimalism into something more poetic, allowing the baby-blue eyes and pockmarked mug to reflect autumnal melancholy, sage poignancy, or some other complex of finely burnished emotions. As the despairing millionaire in Rushmore and the burnt-out Hollywood star in Lost in Translation, Murray offered a wry, tender warning to his younger co-stars, who were greeting adulthood as he was on its downward slide, each meeting in a zone where adolescent and adult roles are mixed up and confused—an epochal condition never expressed better than in these films.
After these masterful turns, though, Murray’s magnetic aura of whimsical profundity became a kind of hazard. Once he acquired the Murray mojo for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson more or less left the filmmaking to the star, wardrobe, and a few Bowie covers—plot and character development fell by the wayside. And when someone as laissez-faire as Jim Jarmusch landed Murray for a segment of Coffee and Cigarettes, the result was almost inert, saved from absolute torpor by Murray’s laconic riffing with Wu-Tang Clansmen RZA and GZA. Mix deadpan acting with deadpan directing and you risk ending up with just plain dead.
None of this bodes well for Jarmusch’s latest, Broken Flowers, which stars Murray as, yes, an aging success, unhappy in love, who is looking back on life. But this time, actor and director seemed to have met each other at a perfect moment. While Murray gives one of his most understated performances in a career full of them, Jarmusch, who wrote the film with Murray in mind, has refined his own repertoire into a spare, solid kind of storytelling for this tender, funny musing on memory and loss.
We meet Don Johnston as we met Murray’s Stripes character John Winger: on the day his exasperated girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walks out on him. The fact that this dumping, again on groundsof his arrested development, happens 24 years later adds a certain tragic dimension. This time, Murray’s jilted cad offers no endearing pleas or wisecracks. He just looks mildly penitent, slumps over on the couch, and lies there.
Don, a software entrepreneur, is an aging lothario—lest we miss the point, he’s watching Douglas Fairbanks in the 1934 The Private Life of Don Juan on TV. We pick up on the pink envelope we watched drifting through the mechanized currents of the postal system in the opening credits. The typewritten letter arrives through Don’s mail slot, like another thorn in his side, its anonymous author informing him that he has a 19-year-old son who may or may not be coming to visit him.
Although he seems content to toss the letter aside and resume brooding, Don is urged by his Ethiopian neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright, in another flawless characterization) to seek out the author and discover the truth. An amateur detective, Winston helps Don narrow the possible mothers down to four ex-lovers, tells him what clues to seek (a typewriter, pink decor), and even makes his travel arrangements for him—sending Don off on a singularly reluctant mystery hunt and beginning one of the most elegant, spooky, and quietly affecting journeys in the Jarmusch oeuvre.
In a rented Taurus, with only the sinuously eerie Afro-funk of his friend’s mix CD for company, Don drives from barren interstate to dusty back road, visiting these four exes. Jarmusch has been working this general concept on and off since Stranger Than Paradise in 1984, and most of his trademarks are here: a strange cross-cultural duo, a hipster-epicurean soundtrack, an episodic structure, a permeating sense of isolation, and a panglobal vision of the people on America’s margins. In revisiting these different loves of Don’s, Jarmusch also revisits gestures and moments in his own oeuvre.
Don’s first stop is a one-story clapboard house in some unspecified rural burg where a baby-faced and pathologically flirty teenager (Alexis Dziena) answers the door in a nightie. This is the first of the deadpan tours de force Murray offers, registering genuine disquiet at this clearly fucked-up girl-woman named Lolita—tract-home dysfunction imitating great art. Soon her mother Laura (Sharon Stone) comes home, a gorgeous but careworn survivor and literal NASCAR widow who’s raising Lo on her own while making her living as a professional closet organizer. Though initially unsettling, the reunion ends amicably with Laura kissing Don’s hand, freeing him to resume his search. He’ll never get off that easy again.
The director’s famous patience for studying uneventful moments works well in Broken Flowers, establishing the strangeness of each life Don encounters and building the tension as we too are sucked up into Don’s state of apophenia—seeing patterns or connections in possibly random or meaningless data. Pink decor, a typewriter, family clearly suspicious of Don’s intentions. And at a backwoods biker outpost Don is met with open hostility by Penny, played by Tilda Swinton in black-dyed, white-trash Jodie Foster mode.
Back home Don has a final tantalizing encounter outside his local diner, this time with a young male backpacker (Mark Webber) about the age of his putative son. Like the girl from Lost in Translation, this young traveler is a would-be philosopher, and he asks Don for any wisdom he might care to impart. Don thinks for a moment. “The past is gone, I know that,” he says slowly. “The future isn’t here yet… So all there is is the present.” Thus he reveals the true fruits of his detective odyssey—something Murray’s deranged groundskeeper Carl in Caddyshack might call “total consciousness.”
At 55, Bill Murray may have taken deadpan into its more classical form, the rhetorical figure litotes, in which deliberate understatement is employed for either comic or tragic effect. This feels like the only appropriate term to describe his performance in the last of Don’s visits, a brief scene that nonetheless anchors all that follows. As with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (or Murray’s Scrooged), the concluding reunion is also the scariest and yields one of the most moving moments in Murray’s entire career.
Don’s—and Murray’s—casually self-conscious, affably raffish charm doesn’t work on this last woman. And this time, when he offers one of those self-consciously lounge-lizardly greetings, he does it softly, tenderly, against choked-back tears. “Hello, Beautiful,” he says, to no one, and lays a bouquet of pink flowers at a headstone. There are laughs still to come in the film, but they’re a bit sweeter and warmer after this gorgeously composed little scene at a rainy cemetery. Filmed by Jarmusch without condescending to the obviously shopworn trope and played by Murray with an understatement that couldn’t be further removed from sarcasm, it’s a reminder that some breakups really are forever.
© 2005 by Chris Norris