Bill Murray may have finally found the director who understands his talents best, in Jim Jarmusch. While the actor has been put to excellent use in many different capacities over his career, he is usually asked to play over the top in some way '- even in what was his most understated performance to this point, in Lost in Translation. Not so in Jarmusch's very quiet road-trip movie, where Murray gets more emotional weight out of a flicker of his eyelids than most actors can get by emoting the heck out of a vengeful monologue.
Jarmusch is not a mainstream director, and even though this may be considered his most mainstream film, it is still not the kind of cinematic experience that is going to attract a weekend multiplex crowd. That's mostly because it is an artistic exercise rather than just a movie, one where the director is truly acting as a visual storyteller and not as a marketer or even as a composer, simply getting all his moving parts to work together.
The narrative is almost inconsequential, and the dialogue even more so. The real depth of the movie is in Murray's soulfulness as Don Johnston, an aging bachelor living in a nondescript suburb and slowly retreating from life in his well-appointed house. A former computer mogul, he doesn't even have a PC or a cell phone to keep him connected to the outside world.
In the first scene, his young girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaves him, and he retreats to his couch to watch old movies '- a particular old movie featuring the story of Don Juan, which foreshadows the upcoming plot twist that Murray's Don receives an anonymous letter saying that he had a son 19 years ago and that son might be coming to look for him. His Ethiopian neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a detective-novel fan, sets him up on an odyssey to visit the handful of former lovers he remembers from that time period, to search out this progeny himself.
Don, still stuck in a stupor and unwilling to be a part of the world, says he won't go, but when the next scene fades up from black, he's on an airplane heading to the first woman's house. He finds an eclectic assortment of people at these stops, including a widowed beauty played by Sharon Stone, who is living with her exhibitionist teenage daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena); an uptight real estate saleswoman (Frances Conroy); a dippy animal communicator (Jessica Lange); and an angry hillbilly woman (Tilda Swinton).
Once he starts his journey, he's not so much looking for clues about his possible son as he is waking up to what his life could have been if he'd stuck with anything. Instead of casting his eyes downward or averting his glance '- as he does when Lolita casually strolls into the living room naked '- he starts to look directly at people, and even one cat, trying to break through. By the time he gets home, he's ready to be a dad, whether or not a son shows up at his door. And his final transformation, which takes place as he stands in the middle of the street and the camera swirls around him, is beautiful and heartbreaking and utterly human.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you long to fall in love
Stars: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright
Director/screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
Producers: Jim Jarmusch, Jon Kilik, Stacey E. Smith
Release date: August 5, 2005, limited; later nationwide
Distributor: Focus Features