Jarmusch prefers observing his poetically imagined characters to psychoanalyzing them. Here his ghost dog, his dead man, his stranger in paradise is Don Johnston, played by Bill Murray and the first of the film's several literarily named characters. Broken Flowers begins with Johnston, an aging womanizer, being tracked down by a piece of well-traveled mail, in a pink envelope stuck with a stamp of an extinct bird. Superannuated himself, and while glumly viewing an old film about his fictional near-namesake, Don Juan, Johnston is precipitously dumped by his younger live-in girlfriend, whom he passively watches back out the driveway. ("It's like I'm your mistress but you're not even married," she tells him.) Then he opens the unsigned letter, which purports to be from an ex-lover, telling him he has a 19-year-old son who might be coming to find him.
The independently wealthy Johnston does with this news what he's been doing with the rest of his life: Nothing. Except that he shares it with his neighbor, a delightful Jarmusch creation named Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a West Indian blue-collar family man and aspiring detective novelist. Winston goads him into taking a road trip of his own, equipped with a list of four exes and the barest of clues, to track down the mystery woman.
The rest of the film comprises these episodes. First stop: vivacious Laura (Sharon Stone), who's delighted to see him and more than receptive to his apparent non-advances. But each of the three remaining suspects is more hostile and secretive than the last. There's Dora (Frances Conroy), a married and vaguely terrified real-estate agent caged in deepest suburbia; Carmen (Jessica Lange), a new-agey professional "animal communicator" who won't tell Johnston anything; and finally Penny (Tilda Swinton), a hard-used woman who gives Johnston a literal shove-off. These performances, especially Conroy's, are arresting, and set off the telling fact that Johnston fares even less well with the men he encounters.
Writer-director Jarmusch is never explicit about Johnston's motives, and his minimalist directorial style is characteristically echoed by Murray, whose somnambulant, even depressive Johnston might have been written for him. Johnston is a sleuth understandably reluctant to investigate his possible pasts, and the pleasure is in divining evidence of curiosity, guilt, regret from the slump of Murray's shoulders, the set of his jowls, the flutter of his eyelids. When Murray offers even a normal-sized gesture it comes off huge, such as Johnston's little smile on a shuttle bus while listening to two adolescent girls prattle. Still on the first leg of his trip, he seems to be coming alive upon emergence from the darkened, tomb-like sterility of his home (the erotic prints adorning its walls barely visible in the murk).
In the fecund sad-clown phase of his career, Murray has played analogous, domestically deprived mid-life characters before, most recently in Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But Jarmusch, by saying less, perhaps gives him the most to work with of all. It's done largely by evocative suggestion: Johnston, for instance, made his money in computers -- but he won't keep one in his house, and the main piece of physical evidence he's after is the typewriter on which the paternity letter was composed.
Meanwhile our Don John (whose name earns smirks from people who hear "Don Johnson") is hunting middle-aged ex-lovers but has a series of prefatory (and inevitably chaste) brushes with the sort of younger women he once pursued, each showing shapely leg: a stewardess, a receptionist and, unnervingly even for him, Laura's teen-age daughter, whose mother (presciently) named her "Lolita." (That the joke is lost on the girl is Jarmusch's literary one-liner).
It's hints and shadows: Invariably Johnston's dialogues with his exes tells us more about them than about him, and the background information that most filmmakers might toss us -- details about the breakups, something about his childhood, anything beyond the fact that he's a mild-mannered rich man self-exiled to his own couch -- Jarmusch eschews.
But Jarmusch isn't being cagey: He's merely aiming elsewhere. Broken Flowers seemed to me a small film at first, and indeed it starts small, with an easily digested gimmick. But the more I thought about it, the bigger it got. This Don Juan who considered himself unconnected to anything now, almost despite himself, comes to see evidence of his paternity, his missed chances, wherever he looks. As in his younger days on the prowl, the possibilities are endless. And that's just the trouble.