Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, a retired computer entrepreneur and has-been Don Juan, who seems to spend most of his time sitting motionless on the couch of his sterile home. When his girlfriend (an unconvincingly young and beautiful Julie Delpy) tires of his refusal to make plans for the future and packs her bags, Don breaks the monotony of his days hanging out with his neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright) and wistfully enjoying the bustle of his friend’s big, noisy family. Then an anonymous letter arrives claiming to be from the mother of a son he unknowingly fathered 20 years before. Don insists that that letter is a hoax, “and if not, who cares?” but Winston, with a passion for detective stories and concern for his friends empty existence, eventually pushes him to undertake a journey into his past, “checking in” on old flames (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton) in search of clues to the writer’s identity.
It’s a nice format for a movie with a little more in the way of a conventional plot and defined theme than we are used to from Jarmusch; a series of awkward encounters that allow Murray’s sublimely blank expression to work its subtle magic, paced out between monotonous journey shots to a hypnotic soundtrack which are classic Jarmusch.
Packed into Screen 1 and the Curzon Soho, Jarmusch and Murray fans, including myself, wanted to love this film and the first few laughs that rose from the audience made me feel uneasy – was that actually that funny, or were we trying too hard? Jarmusch’s moments of quirky humour are gems, and, thankfully, as the story got underway we were rewarded with more than a few of these, particularly in the dialogue between Don and Winston and the prefab meal in the prefab show home of ex-hippy turned real estate woman, Dora (Frances Conroy). As the film progresses hilarity increasingly gives way to tragedy and Murray, through the tiniest facial gestures, convincingly shifts from detached bemusement and sarcasm to desperation.
Making his first film destined to be a real box office success, Jarmusch has sacrificed some of the bizarre, unpredictable magic of his earlier films in favour of a more tangible study into the relentless passing of time, lost opportunities and the painful truth that simple lessons can take a long time to learn. It’s not Jarmusch’s best film, but it’s funny, moving and Murray is at his best.