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Refreshing ‘Broken Flowers’ is prime Murray

Stars as a man who goes in search of his would-be 19-year-old son. By John Hartl

Now in his mid-50s, Bill Murray has enjoyed the most rewarding big-screen career of any of the “Saturday Night Live” veterans. From “Tootsie” to the “Ghostbusters” movies to “Groundhog Day,” he’s acquired an audience that’s understandably loyal and appreciative.

In retrospect, even such misfires as “Where the Buffalo Roam” and “The Razor’s Edge” demonstrated a willingness to venture into territory his “SNL” colleagues usually shunned. And when the riskier projects clicked, as they did with “Ed Wood” and “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation,” the results could be spectacular.

Murray recently found another kindred soul in writer-director Jim Jarmusch. Last year he turned up in a minor role in Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes,” and now he’s the star of Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” a delightfully poker-faced road movie that Jarmusch wrote for him several years ago.

Murray plays a rather morose bachelor named Don Johnston whose fed-up lover (Julie Delpy) leaves him. He also receives a mystery letter informing him that one of his previous liaisons produced a 19-year-old son who might be trying to track him down.

Johnston sets off on a cross-country trek to find the letter’s author and establish which of four ex-girlfriends is the boy’s mother. Actively encouraged by a best friend (Jeffrey Wright) who likes to play amateur sleuth, he makes his first stop at the squalid home of a single mom (Sharon Stone) whose seductive teenager (Alexis Dziena) is, inevitably, named Lolita.

Next up is a one-time free spirit (Frances Conroy) who has settled into a numbing relationship with a realtor (Christopher McDonald). Then there’s an “animal behaviorist” (Jessica Lange) with a clingy secretary (Chloe Sevigny). Last on the list is a backwoods biker (Tilda Swinton). Johnston also runs into a homeless, hungry backpacker (Mark Webber) who could be the son.

Aside from a series of uncomfortable reunions, nothing much is accomplished on this journey. But Jarmusch and Murray revel in the comic tensions that come into play with each fresh confrontation with the past. So do the women, most of them past 40 and shut out of major-studio movies because of age.

Especially effective are Conroy, who finally gets a chance to play something other than the frustrated mother on “Six Feet Under,” and Swinton, who is almost unrecognizable as the most openly hostile of Johnston’s ex-lovers. Lange wryly expresses a less aggressive form of rejection, while Stone casually emphasizes her character’s less uptight approach.

Occasionally the marquee-name casting works against the movie. Delpy is too familiar to be playing her one-note role; her inability to make much of it is distracting. But Sevigny is wonderfully sly, and relative unknowns Dziena and Webber are perfectly cast. With each of them, Murray’s response is subtly different. Like the ambivalent characters in such Jarmusch classics as “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Mystery Train,” he makes the most of his deadpan balancing act.

Refreshingly assured and original,  “Broken Flowers” won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It arrives in theaters just in time to offer a healthy alternative to the dogs of August — that major-studio dumping ground for movies deemed too weak to battle the blockbusters. If “Lost in Translation” can become a hit, why not this?