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Review: Broken Flowers

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Over the past few years, a new breed of independent film has been evolving: wised-up yet earnest; suffused with wry melancholy; emotionally accessible enough to achieve a certain degree of mainstream crossover, but at the same time reserved and elliptical enough to avoid alienating the Landmark constituency. These movies aren’t bad, by any means — at times they can be quietly exhilarating — but they have roughly the same relationship to works of genuine daring and passion that, say, the Fonz had to real-world juvenile delinquents. Cozy and risk-averse, they tend to be wildly overpraised by critics eager to congratulate themselves for championing mature, adult cinema. If Lost in Translation and/or Sideways left you wondering just what the big deal was supposed to be, prepare to be similarly underwhelmed by Broken Flowers, which finds the reigning dean of indie cool, Jim Jarmusch, trafficking in broad laughs, easy pathos and a narrative structure so conventionally tidy that it’s quite literally been mapped out.

    Jarmusch reportedly conceived Broken Flowers as a vehicle for Bill Murray, whose suburban Pagliacci routine, so startling and fresh in Rushmore, has now begun to calcify. Here, Murray plays an aging Don Juan confronted with the possibility that one of the many women he bedded twenty years earlier may have secretly borne his child. How do we know this guy was once a Don Juan? We know because (a) two different characters refer to him as such; (b) we first see him watching The Private Life of Don Juan on TV; and (c) his name — I’m not making this up, alas — is Don Johnston. One expects this sort of boneheaded, insecure highlighting from a project that’s been massaged by sixteen uncredited Hollywood script doctors, but not from a mind as agile and idiosyncratic as Jarmusch’s.

    Spurred by his next-door neighbor, an armchair detective and African-jazz enthusiast (Jeffrey Wright, hamming it up enjoyably), Don sets out to visit the four ex-girlfriends (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton) who might conceivably have sent him the anonymous letter informing him of his progeny. This premise has a built-in poignancy, albeit of the high-school-reunion variety, and each encounter works reasonably well as a self-contained duet of discomfort and nostalgia. As a whole, though, Broken Flowers feels slight and self-satisfied, a series of calculated riffs coated with a patina of superficial dolour. It’s Jarmusch’s most commercial movie to date, and his least interesting. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: My Date with Drew
First things first: It’s not really a date. Brian Herzlinger, the wannabe filmmaker at the heart of this do-it-yourself doc, has been enchanted by Drew Barrymore since she was six, but he’s quick to let us know his intentions are not romantic; he just wants to meet her. Or at least get famous trying. Our hero, having won $1,100 on a game show, has decided to use his newfound dinero (despite being pretty much broke), along with Circuit City’s thirty-day return policy on video cameras, to make a documentary about trying to get his “date” with Ms. Barrymore. The stunt here is painfully obvious. At least Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me was trying to demonstrate the evils of our eating habits. Herzlinger’s gambit is about getting noticed as much as anything else. As one of his interview subjects remarks, “The dumbing of America is complete.”

    So you might be surprised to learn that My Date with Drew eventually goes from a cynical, smarmy grab for fame to a pleasantly engaging look at the untouchable nature of celebrity. The key here is Herzlinger himself: On first impression, he’s a classic shlub, aimless and unmotivated, and it’s easy to ascribe less than noble intentions to him. As the film progresses, however, he gains focus, perhaps because he himself has found some purpose, however tenuous, in his life. As various celebrity gatekeepers close doors in his face, he gains an odd, Everyman-like pathos. By the end, he’s become an unlikely hero; we’ve gone from sneering at his callow hijinks to cheering his bright-eyed determination. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Junebug
Director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan might both be from the South, but the cavalcade of quirk they present us with in Junebug is straight out of Indiewood. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a British art gallery owner, has had a whirlwind romance with a younger man, George (Alessandro Nivola), and now they’re married. Since she still doesn’t know all that much about her paramour, Madeleine isn’t sure what to expect when they visit the North Carolina home of George’s oddly dysfunctional family. At first, they’re a hotbed of insensitivity and ignorance: Brother Johnny’s wife Ashley, for all her warm curiosity, is something of a buffoon; Johnny himself is psychotically standoffish; Mom and Dad aren’t much better. Madeleine tries at first to open up to her new in-laws, but of course, the film will eventually reveal her to be the callous one: She’s really visiting North Carolina to try and woo a craggly folk artist (Frank Hoyt Taylor), a fact which would have made for an inspired little subplot were it not for the giant flashing lights around it screaming “Third Act Plot Device”.

    All that wouldn’t have mattered if Morrison and MacLachlan could delineate their supporting characters with clarity. But the entire movie suffers from sketchiness: The tensions in George’s family are never really addressed, and George himself, responsible for so much of the plot, remains an enigma. It feels intentional, of course, but what Morrison and MacLachlan are hoping will just be tantalizingly mysterious is instead frustratingly vague. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD #44: The Thin Man Collection
The best Date DVD of the year, The Thin Man Collection collects the six terrific Thin Man romantic comedies, based ever-so-loosely on the scandalous Dashiell Hammet novel. Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy), the two scotch-loving, crime-solving lovers who lead these films, conspire to create one of the most modern romances ever caught on film.

    Since Nerve has already sung the praises of the incredible Myrna Loy, the rich, whip-smart wise-ass who holds her own at the bar and on the street, I’ll take this chance to champion her Powell. Generally soused, frumpy, balding, and sleepy-eyed, his Nick isn’t anyone’s ideal mate. That is, until he talks. And when Powell works his patter he’s part comic, part carnival barker, part barkeep — a man who, in the midst of the Depression, was as utterly relaxed as a man could be. A self-made private eye, Nick knew the number of every crook and player in town, but, of course, cared for nobody so much as Nora, so much that he seems to have one eye on Nora, the other on a iced-tea glass of booze, and no concern for the cases that frame each film.

    Nick’s secret, of course, is no secret. Even as he’s dodging bullets on the trail of a murderer, Powell plays Nick with nothing but confidence, a kind of shambling comic brio no less confident than the stiff, square-jawed certainty of, say, Robert Mitchum. After all, if noir was the odd-angle expression of deep-seated American anxieties, the Thin Man mysteries were their opposite: a distillation of silly, irrational exuberance in the face of terror — which isn’t such a bad analogy for dating. Nick approaches crime in the way your Daddy told you to walk into your first dance: don’t worry, be yourself, go ahead and have a good time. — Logan Hill



 
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