Jim Jarmusch's new film, Broken Flowers, falls into a small but distinguished genre of movies written specifically to exploit the gifts of Bill Murray: the long, heavy-lidded reaction takes, the mocking gaze, the frown of wounded vanity and, mostly, a tendency of his characters to view life as a strangely askew game. With Murray as his muse, Harold Ramis created the 1993 comic masterpiece, Groundhog Day. Sofia Coppola won an Oscar writing a film for Murray, Lost in Translation. Now Jarmusch, the white-haired New York director of such alternative fables as Down by Law and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, joins the club.
In Broken Flowers, Murray plays an independently wealthy man named Don Johnston ("with a t" he wearily explains repeatedly, to distinguish himself from the Miami Vice star). In the opening scene, his pretty young girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaves him. She tells him he's a Don Juan. His Ethiopian neighbour, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), father of five children, holder of three jobs and an enthusiastic amateur detective, also calls him Don Juan. He watches a movie about Don Juan on television. Could life be trying to tell him something?
The day he loses his girlfriend, Don receives a pink letter from an old flame, saying that he is father of a son, now 19, who may be on his way to visit him. Unfortunately, the letter is unsigned. Winston, who loves the Internet, researches as many of Don's old flames as Don can remember, and creates an itinerary for a road trip into his past, looking for a woman who likes pink and uses a typewriter. The list of suspects includes five women, but one is dead. Those left include Sharon Stone as a mom with a sexpot adolescent daughter, Tilda Swinton as a tense real-estate agent, Jessica Lange as an angry animal therapist and Frances Conroy as an even angrier motorcycle mama.
The movie, like many of Jarmusch's films, is a road story ("the oldest form there is," says the director) with Don driving about various humble suburbs, farmlands and wealthy estates. While he drives, he listens to Ethiopian music that Winston has given him. In each visit, Don finds himself surprised both by the hurt and sometimes the love he has left in his wake.
Broken Flowers wasn't the first script Jarmusch had written with Murray in mind; he completed one several years ago, but lost interest. Murray asked Jarmusch to keep him in mind for any new ideas, and eventually Jarmusch created one: "I didn't write it for Bill Murray exactly. I wrote a character I knew Bill Murray could do," he clarifies.
Murray is notoriously private -- it took Sofia Coppola six months to track him down before he agreed to play in Lost in Translation. He grabbed onto the first question about the film's minimalist approach and kept up a self-deprecating flow.
"A bon, bon question," said Murray. "My minimalism comes from a deterioration of abilities, an erosion of skills. I just have less and less to give all the time. . . . I don't have much dialogue. Most of what I do is reacting to being stoned by these women."
Jarmusch noted that, "as a lot of critics have pointed out, I'm not very plot-oriented. I have no idea or interest in the character's back story or why he has the kind of hole in him that he does. It's the portrait of a character who receives this letter and is able to reflect upon his past."
Did Murray have people in his past he had tried to see again? "I've tried," he said. "Usually in the middle of the night in a strange town. I don't recommend it. . . . I think a lot about people from my past but again, I attribute that to the deterioration of the mind." The experience of simulating a man in search of his past loves, said Murray, "was unsettling, disturbing. If you're interested in this kind of experience I recommend circus camp instead for a couple of weeks, where you can learn how to swing on a trapeze."
He is nonchalant about the process of his acting or creating imaginary backgrounds for his characters because, "it tears you away from where you are, from the moment. The most important thing is, when the camera rolls, you're there."
Murray had fun with the often impossibly convoluted questions asked by journalists. To one question -- about whether Jarmusch could use less dialogue in his marketing clips so they would be easier to show on television -- Murray threw up his hands and said, "We don't understand you. Sorry."
When an Argentine reporter prefaced a question by saying how scared he was of Murray's movie, Ghostbusters, when he was a child, Murray interrupted him to say soothingly: "Don't worry -- you're safe now."
Then he managed to bring Ghostbusters back to the theme of his new film.
"Well, that film frightened a lot of kids. There are a lot of different kinds of ghosts out there. The difficulty is to confront your troubles and when you do that, you turn into a person instead of a passive, disconnected clown. In Ghostbusters, the ghost turns into a big marshmallow man, and that's what a lot of your troubles do when you face them."
Neither Jarmusch, 52, nor Murray, 54, agreed that the movie was a story about their own midlife crises.
"I'm just getting to my midlife crisis now -- stick around," joked Murray. "I do have crises all the time but they're not related to how long I've been around. . . . There's a point where you ask certain questions and realize you're never going to get the answers, you're just going to keep returning to those questions. That's not necessarily sad but it's sobering."
It is also sobering that Murray, alone among the cast of the early Saturday Night Live, is still a force in the entertainment industry. Asked why he has endured, Murray responded with unctuous mock sincerity: "Because I care . . . ," followed a beat later, by a dismissive "No."
His own perseverance doesn't impress him: "Some people eat the same breakfast every morning," he says. "It's not necessarily a good thing."