Murray comes apart as the past comes together

A letter is dumped into a mailbox by the hand of a woman whose face is obscured. It is collected by the mailman, driven to the post office, filed, processed and flown across the country, to arrive at the doorstep of a home with a new (or at least unused) Mercedes parked in the driveway. The letter has arrived at Don’s house.

Don (Bill Murray) is in the process of being broken up with – not breaking up, because that would require effort on his part. His girlfriend, Sherry (Julie Delpy), wants some kind of commitment from him, but he simply can’t give her that.

Don doesn’t seem willing to do much of anything. He sits on his couch, listens to Beethoven and contemplates drinking his glass of wine, though he ultimately decides against it.

But his impassive life is turned upside down with the arrival of the letter. Typewritten on pink paper, it is from a former flame of Don’s who does not give her name. The letter informs him that Don has a twenty-year-old son who has just learned of his father’s existence and has struck out in search of him.

When Don’s neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an overactive private detective wannabe, learns of the letter’s existence, he immediately jumps into action, preparing a trip for Don that will take him to the five women who could be the mother of his child.

Don, who is initially resistant, brings a bouquet of pink flowers to each of his former lovers and sees how they react to the subtle hints he throws their way. He also keeps his eyes open for clues within their homes, pink items and typewriters.

When Don arrives on their doorsteps with the pink bouquets, he finds that his four ex-loves – played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton – are all living lives that have been marked by their flings with Don. He changed each of them permanently, but he remains remote, maintaining the illusion for himself that he is untouchable, that he cannot be hurt the way he has hurt others. But of course, this illusion is impossible to maintain.

By this point, Murray has become a master of subtly revealing the inner workings of his characters’ minds with only the slightest of gestures. Murray and writer-director Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger than Paradise,” “Coffee and Cigarettes”) are able to show how Don’s desire to live his life is lying just beneath the surface with just a turn of a phrase or a sideways glance. That they make it so funny is equally impressive.

The title “Broken Flowers” suggests that films by Yasujiro Ozu (“Floating Weeds,” “Equinox Flower”) had a major influence on Jarmusch’s style. But while Jarmusch utilizes many static camera angles, which were the trademark of the Japanese master, he often employs a roaming point of view to suggest how Don’s life is coming apart because of the outside forces conspiring against him.

The result is that the pacing of the film occasionally feels a little too deliberate. Jarmusch emphasizes the dormancy of Don’s existence by slowly unraveling his story, but he forces his hand a few times.

This can easily be forgiven though, as “Broken Flowers” is one of the strongest character-driven movies to come out in quite some time. Jarmusch has once again made a film outside the Hollywood studio system that reflects his personal sensibilities. The story is both inspirational and depressing. It’s a paradox that, unlike Don, works wonderfully.