There’s not a lot I could say about this without a spoiler warning, so here it is: SPOILER WARNING
An “aging Don Juan” (Bill Murray) gets a letter from an ex-lover who says he has a 19-year-old son he hadn’t known about, and the son may be seeking him out. He doesn’t want to get involved, but his nosy neighbor pushes him to the point they get a list of 5 possibilities, one of whom is dead. He sets out to find out which woman is the mother of his child.
This could be the set-up for a dozen comedies I’ve seen, such as Flirting With Disaster, or considerably darker things. It could be a detective story. It could make you chuckle, it could make you weep. But Jim Jarmusch, director of the brilliant little Coffee and Cigarettes, isn’t interested in stuff like that, and neither is Bill Murray, anymore.
You’ve got to admire Murray. He could be like Steve Martin (I’m sorry to say), cranking out Stripes Goes to Iraq or Caddyshack VII. But he seems to be done with that sort of thing (unless, I hope, a really good script comes along). He used to be the master of laid-back comedy; now he’s going for almost catatonic comedy. This is risky. He has already lost part of his audience, the short attention span folks who want a pratfall every 30 seconds, the ones who won’t study his motionless, almost Zen presence to see what’s really going on in the scene. And he could go overboard on it, if he’s not careful. But so far, it’s working for me. He was great in Lost in Translation, and he repeats a lot of that here. He can barely talk, barely move, he is so tied up in angst. He takes off on this journey not from any enthusiasm, but because he has nothing else to do, his latest girlfriend has left him and he’s not going anywhere. He seems to know, down deep, that it will be a disaster.
And it is. He meets the four women. We see from clever little clues that any of them might be the mother, but none of them are saying. Maybe it’s someone else entirely. Maybe it’s the son of the dead woman who wrote the letter. Maybe it’s the girlfriend who just left him, trying to shake him up. Maybe he has the wrong list, maybe he’s forgotten someone. Maybe it’s just an ugly prank from who-knows-what in his past. But there is no neat conclusion, no scene of reconciliation … in fact, no solution. And yet he has been moved by the journey. To his own surprise, he wants to know this son, as shown in a very subtle, very well-done scene with a boy who might be his son … but there’s a very good chance he never will, or even know if he has a son, which would be even worse. By being so emotionally dead for 90% of the film, Bill Murray is able to make this scene carry an incredible weight of emotion simply by trying to speak of his feelings for the first time, awkwardly, and tragically, and then he is standing there in the middle of the road, alone, still with no place to go. If it reminds me of any film, it is Blow-Up. Things happen, the hero flounders around for a time … and is left without even the assurance that anything happened at all.