I'm not much of a Jim Jarmusch fan. Check that. Not anything of a Jim Jarmusch fan. More of a Jim Jarmusch bare tolerator. But Broken Flowers, his latest and surely his mainstreamiest, gave me a lot of laughs, even allowing that the first of those was a laugh at his pretentiousness, a laugh at his opening dedication of the film to Jean Eustache. It is doubtful whether many of his really rabid fans will recognize the name of the French film aficionado, ascetic aesthete, Cahiers du Cinéma groupie, unprolific director of The Mother and the Whore and a few others, a suicide at the age of forty-two, or whether they will be moved hereafter to investigate his oeuvre, or whether that in turn can shed much light on Jarmusch's own oeuvre, any more than was shed by his earlier salute, for example, to Yasujiro Ozu. Still, it can do no harm to point his followers in that direction, though it can do less good than to point them in Ozu's. The latter grants access to a busier road.
The pretension does not stop there. It persists, more or less throughout, in the cinéma d'ennui pacing, and rears up with a vengeance in the deliberately dissatisfying ending. In a race between tortoise and tortoise, Jarmusch might have some difficulty crossing the finish line behind Antonioni in his prime, or kicking up quite so thick a cloud of mystification. But it would be short odds. Laughs are laughs, nonetheless, and once they have fought through the pretentiousness, they cannot be wiped off the scoreboard. (Another impediment to be fought through, another potential wet blanket, is an image a shade or two dark and dreary.) The idea of the film is a simple one and an immediately appealing one. We start with "an over-the-hill Don Juan" (words of a huffily departing girlfriend) by the name of Don Johnston ("with a 't'," he must frequently tell skeptical new acquaintances), a man of leisure who made a bundle in computers. More precisely, we start, in straightforward brass-tacks manner, with a pink envelope dropped by an anonymous hand into an anonymous mailbox outside an anonymous post office, followed through the sorting process, onto an airplane, into the bag of a pedestrian carrier, and through the slot in the front door of our Don Juan, as he sits on his couch watching -- what else? -- The Private Life of Don Juan on his plasma television. The envelope contains an unsigned typewritten letter from a former lover, informing him that he has a nineteen-year-old son bent on tracking him down. At the urging of his mystery-buff neighbor (an unlikely neighbor in so swanky a suburb, a West Indian family man with three menial jobs and more than that many children), he draws up a list of possible suspects from the pertinent time period -- a list of five, one now deceased, scattered across the country, as revealed through a search of the Internet -- and sets out to track them down, pre-emptively, and to smoke out the source of the letter. Counseled by the mystery buff to keep an eye peeled for clues in pink, he will find the color everywhere he goes: pink chairs, pink earrings, pink bathrobe, pink business card, pink typewriter (ah-ha!), etc. And can it be a mere coincidence that the dead dog of one of his exes will have the same name -- Winston -- as the mystery buff himself?
The itinerary of our amateur sleuth leads to a broad spectrum of people and places, and in between, to some invigorating on-the-road shots through a rental-car windshield. Put more pretentiously, it adds up to a tour of Paths Not Taken, a graph of Life's Changes. "When we were together, you were so passionate about becoming a lawyer," he marvels to the one who has become instead a self-styled Animal Communicator. With only a little effort, we can imagine Woody Allen coming up with such an idea and going to town with it. We cannot quite imagine, these days, that the idea would have turned out this funny; that he would actually have gotten anywhere near to town with it. The deadpan detachment of Bill Murray, of whom I am not much of a fan either, is a perfect match for that of his director; and the humor comes through as less strained, or less buried under pretension, than normal for Jarmusch, even in his hitherto best efforts (Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train). It sprouts, it blooms, it flowers out of the gaps, the schisms, the chasms between people; and even a peripheral pair of girlish chatterboxes on an airport shuttle -- never to be seen again -- can make a generous contribution to it. After Murray, a minimal reactor, a frosty mirror, a cautious counterpuncher, the most generous contributor is Jeffrey Wright as the nudging neighbor. But all of the prime suspects (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton) and their nearest and dearest (Alexis Dziena, an uninhibited nymphet christened Lolita and blissfully ignorant of her literary namesake; Christopher McDonald, a hail-fellow hubby; Chloë Sevigny, a lesbian yet again) have their own contributions to make: distant worlds in widening orbits. You are free, once the closing credits are rolling, to pursue the mystery into the trackless recesses of the human heart, the enigmatic ego, the predestined identity. But you will then have to leave behind the laughs that made the trip pleasurable.
Lila Says has some good local color, notwithstanding the warping wide-angle lenses, of an Arab suburb of Paris in the post-9/11 era. The breathy, blond, angelic temptress who moves into the neighborhood with her narrow-minded, broad-hipped guardian would not be part of that palette. Her relationship with the sensitive one in a gang of four (the would-be writer and never-been reader: "It's amazing how long it takes to write. I had no idea") progresses rather slowly after the strong come-on of their first encounter -- "Do you want to see my pussy?" -- and her delivery on her offer. That and the dragged-out tease thereafter (tactfully depicted by director Ziad Doueiri) register as moderately hot on the erotic thermometer. The brutal heart-tugging of the climactic plot turns can be resisted not so much on emotional grounds as on logical ones. They don't follow.