Broken Flowers and The Beautiful Country

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, August 1, 2005


In this age of family break-up, the theme of separated fathers and sons underlies the summer's sci-fi popcorn movies, such as "War of the Worlds," "Batman Begins," and "Revenge of the Sith." It also drives two of the season's quieter releases for grown-ups, "Broken Flowers" with Bill Murray and "The Beautiful Country" with Nick Nolte.

In "Broken Flowers," which opens August 5th, veteran minimalist auteur Jim Jarmusch has his most commercially promising film. With 1984's "Stranger than Paradise," Jarmusch began making glacially-paced exercises in sensory deprivation that bored you into the giggles. The highlight of "Stranger" was watching two dullards on a midwinter visit to Cleveland try, and fail, to figure out something to do. Go look at the frozen Lake Erie? Their lapses into hopeless silence lowered your resistance enough that when Eddie eventually dredged up the suggestion that maybe they could take in a Cavalier's NBA game, and Willie scornfully replied "The Cavs? They're like one and fifty!" well, just by contrast this dialogue seemed almost as brilliant as Captain Renault's "Round up the usual suspects" at the climax of "Casablanca."

"Broken Flowers," though, has a more elaborate and conventional plot. Murray plays an aging and depressive Don Juan named Don Johnston, whose latest girlfriend leaves him because he's uninterested in marriage and children, and, frankly, a bit of a blank. But then Murray receives an anonymous letter on pink stationery from an old flame revealing that after they broke up in the 1980s, she bore his son, and the young man has now gone on the road in search of his father. Murray's neighbor, best friend, and complete opposite, an enthusiastic Ethiopian immigrant (Jeffrey Wright) with five kids, talks Murray into tracking down his four ex-girlfriends from that era. Whichever woman likes pink, his buddy theorizes, must have written the letter.

Murray first reunites with lovely Sharon Stone, who explains of her late race car driver husband, "And then Donnie exploded in a ball of flames." Less hospitable is the daunting Jessica Lange, now a prosperous "animal communicator." But the four encounters prove inconclusive -- all the women like pink. (Hey, they're girls.) So, Murray returns home, wistfully wondering whether each young man he passes is the son he hopes will give his life meaning.

Teaming Jarmusch with Murray, America's great minimalist movie star, must have seemed ideal. Yet, the pairing is a little too perfect, making "Broken Flowers" the Jarmusch movie for people who hate Jarmusch movies. At this point in his career, the melancholy Murray barely has to do anything -- he merely hints at one of his famous facial expressions and we mentally fill in the blank for him. Murray's stasis is so watchable that Jarmusch's trademark tedium never quite kicks in, making "Broken Flowers" more entertaining but less amusing than "Stranger in Paradise."

Likewise, Murray seems better suited to play the still center of a three-ring circus like "Lost in Translation" than in a slower tempo film like this.

Opening July 8th, "The Beautiful Country" is, indeed, a beautifully-filmed story about the Vietnamese son of an American GI. Because he's Amerasian, everyone in Vietnam mistreats him because they think he's ugly. You'll have to take that on faith, however, because the director (who is, oddly enough, Norwegian) couldn't find a Eurasian actor. The pure Vietnamese fellow he hired, Damien Nguyen, looks like all the other Vietnamese who are scorning him for his mixed features. "Colorblind casting" might work in theatre, but in film you have to get race right, especially when your movie is about heredity.

The hero sells himself into indentured servitude to pay for a hellish freighter voyage to New York's Chinatown. Eventually he escapes and hitchhikes to Texas. There, he gets a job as a handyman on a cattle ranch alongside his father, Nick Nolte, who is blind from his war wounds.

The masculine pathos of the final scenes are moving. After a lifetime of racist ostracism, the son is pleased to find that he shares the DNA of this magnificent wreck of a man. And when the father finally figures out whom this fellow with the Vietnamese accent actually is, he's glad his son has come half away around the world to work with him. Of course, being Real Men in Cowboy Country, the two don't ever mention any of this to each other. Their contented taciturnity together makes for a memorable happy ending.

Both are rated R.


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