Jim Jarmusch's mainstreamiest film to date has a lot of laughs in it, despite the pretentiousness of the cinéma d'ennui pacing and deliberately dissatisfying ending. Laughs are laughs, nonetheless, and once they've 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) who receives 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. 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. 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, a minimal reactor, a frosty mirror, a cautious counterpuncher, makes a perfect match for that of his director; and the humor, sprouting out of the gaps, the schisms, the chasms between people, comes through as less strained, or less buried under pretension, than normal for Jarmusch. 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. Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Chloë Sevigny. (2005) — Duncan Shepherd
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