No Easy Gait

'Broken Flowers' & 'March of the Penguins'

Bill Murray was the first movie comedian since W. C. Fields to make cold contempt hip and attractive. For both performers the world was enemy. Fields squinted at it suspiciously but Murray’s gaze never concealed its open contempt. The Murray stare said, “Yes, if you feel you have just made an utter and eternal ass of yourself, trust that intuition completely.”

Fields folded in on himself like a cardsharp checking the aces up his sleeve, but Murray was generous with his venom and displayed surprising degrees of vocal color and gestural inventiveness while sharing it. Lashing out at his charitable assistant in Scrooged, Murray designated her his “ex-x-x-x-sssecretary!” the sibilance of his rage spraying the air. And the way he washed his face in Groundhog Day—three robotic splashes to the face—suggested that Phil the supercilious weatherman found even morning ablutions a waste of his precious time.

But the last few years and films have witnessed a change in Murray. The sarcasm hasn’t vanished but it’s imploded. He seems bemused by the jackass within. The wiseacre motormouth has turned into an unusually quiet man keeping his hands at his sides, the shoulders sloping a bit back in trepidation, the now scanty hair no longer coifed, the lips compressed, the eyes containing tiny glints of surprise, skepticism, gentle mockery, hints of self-disgust, and, yes, even compassion. Bill Murray is now a mere sketch of himself, but the sketch is poignantly attractive.

Since a sketch may disappear within an action-packed, brightly painted canvas, Murray nowadays makes an impact in stories that are even more wispy than his current persona: the oddball Rushmore, the touchingly subdued Lost in Translation, and now Broken Flowers. Its writer-director, Jim Jarmusch, possesses a cinematic style (lengthy medium-shots punctuated by quick close-ups) that parallels Murray’s acting (dead-pan reactions punctuated by sarcastic eye-rollings and snickers). Jarmusch tells shaggy-dog stories solely to get quirky personalities into the same room so that mannerisms and tics may rub against one another for the sake of mild comedy, wry sympathy, hip eccentricity.

Broken Flowers, too, is shaggy dog in its easy gait and its absurdist, frustrated and frustrating conclusion; it’s also a broken-down detective story in which nothing is allowed to add up and the mystery is never solved. An “over-the-hill Don Juan” (that’s a Parthian shot by a decamping mistress) called Don Johnston receives a letter from an anonymous ex-girlfriend claiming that she gave birth to their son nineteen years ago, a son now on the road in search of his father. An effervescent neighbor, Winston (delightfully uncorked by Jeffrey Wright) indulges both his amateur gumshoe instincts and his desire for Don to revel in family life the way Winston does. He plots an itinerary sending his friend on a detective odyssey to locate and interview the four women who were Don’s girlfriends nineteen years ago. Don dismisses the letter as a probable hoax and the quest as quixotic. Then he begins it. Why?

The answer isn’t in the script (at least not in the dialogue) but in Bill Murray’s face. The line of the mouth may be a study in enervation but the eyes and the irony-laced voice reveal that, though the superannuated seducer wants to stay home and rot on his Naugahyde couch, the youthful mocker within still has the hunger to hit the road in search of...what? Something that transcends mockery?

It’s a set-up seemingly made for melancholy, but the first three episodes are comic, with Murray’s quizzicality bouncing off the enigmatic surfaces of three attractive, middle-aged (cannily cast) unreadable babes. Sharon Stone’s good-natured sexiness, Frances Conroy’s ultrabourgeoisie starchiness, and Jessica Lange’s weird combination of spaciness and acidity, all stop their former lover dead in his tracks. For different reasons all of them seem unlikely dispatchers of the letter. As for the last interviewee, played by an almost unrecognizable, brutishly vivid Tilda Swinton, she has our hero beaten up and thrown back into his car, which would be a startlingly nasty end to the odyssey except for the fact that Jarmusch appends a surprising coda: Don mourning at the grave of one more lover. Her personality has never been described but her importance to Don is conveyed with beautiful economy by Murray’s very posture as he sits near the headstone and lifts his face to the stormy sky. At this moment, Johnston seems to have purged himself and achieved a measure of tranquility. Oh stingy measure!

Because, returning home, Don spots a youth he intuits to be his son, but his attempt to make contact scares the boy away. Johnston will have to live riddled by doubt. A condign punishment for a lifetime of noncommitment? Or a filthy cosmic joke on a man now ready to love? If I had merely read the script, I would have said the former. But the sheer likableness of Bill Murray steers me to the latter.

In that last fiasco of an interview, the subject is raised of Buddhism’s quest for living in the moment. Bill Murray’s stillnesses and Zen economy of gesture suggest a Buddha-like calm acceptance. When he sits listening to funky music screaming out the supremacy of sexual desire, the actor doesn’t move a muscle and his face is a blank. The music ripples over him like ocean water over a rock. But a man is not a rock. Buddhistic contemplation may have been attained (in a Soho studio manner) but not by the protagonist the camera is trained on. Bill Murray isn’t playing the still center of a storm, yet he gives us a deceptively still presence containing a storm.

In March of the Penguins we have a gorgeously photographed ode to conformity. When the penguins of Antarctica waddle seventy miles from the ocean’s edge to more solid ice to mate and lay eggs, they must all march together in order to outpace the oncoming snow. At the mating and birthing ground the eggs are produced, but the mothers—dangerously low in body weight—must then trudge back to the water for fish food and so the fathers become the egg warmers. And unless these males mass together, taking turns to be at the cozy center of the huddle, they must freeze along with the precious eggs. Some eggs succumb anyway, either in the shell or soon after birth. Heartbreakingly, when some mothers discover their loss, they try to steal living babies but the pack enforces the law that birth mothers keep their own. Was there ever a G-rated movie so unblinkingly candid about natural facts?

How artistically fitting, then, that writer-director Luc Jacquet and his team of National Geographic photographers not only did not anthropomorphize the birds but did not even select particular penguins to be the heroes of the tale. We are seeing group action here, instinctive communitas, and those looking to ooh and ah had best rent Bambi. Also admirable is the dry-eyed narration rendered without italics by Morgan Freeman.

But though nature is without sentimentality, it is not without love. During courtship, when the male and female face each other, and the male, with his surprisingly swanlike neck, curves his bill over the female, I thought that Aphrodite, far away on sunny Mount Olympus, might have been touched by the tribute. I also wondered if Don Johnston might shoot himself after seeing this movie.

Published in the 2005-09-23 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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