What?! More Jim Jarmusch!? Yes, ‘fraid so. Though it’s colour this time!
I could swear this is the Jarmusch that I once read someone simply but profanely put down after its first showing (at Cannes, or some such place), yet now I can find no record of the quote (which I could swear that I do, in fact, remember exactly), so I can only comment insofar as “I think this was it, but I don’t really know at all.” That’s not very helpful, but I do know there are some nasty reviews about the movie, especially its ending (which, if you’ve read any of my reviews, you should know I’m not going to tell–though I can see why some might be disappointed by it).
I went into this with zero knowledge of what kind of movie it was, other than “written and directed by Jim Jarmusch,” which covers a pretty wide area of ground. So, we start on a USPS truck, picking up mail from a streetside mailbox, taking it to the sorting center type place, then watching the machinery sort out all the mail, then seeing the mail delivered. We see Sherry (Julie Delpy, whose French accent continues to make one in fifty or so words incomprehensible if you aren’t prepared for it) leaving Don Johnston (Bill Murray) alone in his home. They find a pink letter on the floor, just delivered, and Sherry asks if it is from one of his other lady friends, says she doesn’t know what she wants and then finally leaves. Don’s nextdoor neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) calls, asking Don for help with a website he’s having trouble accessing. When Don comes over to help, Winston sees the letter and feels compelled to solve its mystery–the letter tells Don that a woman he ended his relationship with twenty years ago found out she was pregnant at the time and had a son, who is now around nineteen, and he has gone off on a road trip–more than likely searching for Don himself. Don is not completely interested in this mystery, but Winston has a strong affection for detectives, crimes and solving mysteries, and begins to push Don into discovering who his son is, and who his son’s mother is–for the letter is unsigned. Don casually, passively follows Winston’s suggestions and pushes, though he constantly proclaims a complete lack of interest in the final answer.
Eventually, Winston has put together a portfolio of information–addresses, maps, rentals, airlines and reservations–to lead Don through all the women he dated twenty years earlier. Don is still disinterested in solving this, but after finding himself bored with his standard life, he undertakes the trip anyway, visiting four old flames–Laura (Sharon Stone), Dora (Frances Conroy), Carmen (Jessica Lange), Penny (Tilda Swinton) and Michelle (whose character is dead and thus uncast–this is no revelation, Winston tells him this when he has first put the portfolio together). Laura is a “professional closet organizer” with a hilarious daughter (I shall say no more) who married a professional racecar driver. Dora is a repressed real estate agent married to Ron (Christopher McDonald) who is a banal, oblivious and rather boring man who shares her business. Carmen is now an “animal communicator” (not a psychic, she reminds Don repeatedly), Penny is living with a biker (and they listen to the seminal doom-metal band Sleep!) and Michelle is still, well, dead.
The film is about Don’s journey to see these women, and moreso about what each tells or teaches him–openly, subtly or otherwise. He’s more aware, now, of the effects his actions in the past have had, for ill or good, and what this means to him. Which is the mother? Well I can’t very well tell you THAT, can I?
Jim apparently wrote the film specifically for Murray, and it feels very right. I did see Lost in Translation, certainly the closest spiritual companion to this film in Murray’s filmography, and I was not impressed. I was bored by it, to be honest, and had doubts about whether Bill was going to be any good at straight acting, or in very subtle comedies. Now, I guess I can’t call much of the comedy here very subtle, but it does highlight–to greater effect in my mind–that Bill does have the chops for dramatic acting. No there’s no tirades, breakdowns or anything else open, but we can hear, even in Murray’s inevitably deadpan delivery, how the events he’s going through are, indeed, affecting his outlook on life. It was nice to see Frances Conroy outside Six Feet Under, which I’ve only done once or twice previously, and to see Tilda Swinton in a role that is, in some ways, almost unrecognizable for her, as compared to the things I’ve seen her in before.
As I said, I can see why some might be disappointed, and I was warned that this was a slow film. Oddly, I disagree with both sentiments. It moved quite nicely in my opinion, even as we did feel the hollow langour of Don’s life as it was throughout the film, with many a dreary sky and landscape, and Bill’s constantly dour expressions. Still, I liked it quite a bit. As with all Jarmusch, it’s iffy as to whether you will like it, if you have seen none of the rest of his work, but it’s always possible.