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Will wonders never cease? It looks like determinedly independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has got a hit on his hands. What's odd here is that Broken Flowers isn't very different from his earlier work, including Down By Law, Night on Earth, and, my favorite, Dead Man. It's another offbeat slice of life story, presented in laconic yet slightly jittery style. As usual, it's more than just one story, although one character is at the film's center.

Broken Flowers opens in a similar manner as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where candy is followed from vats on the production line to shelves in a store. Here we see someone's hands putting a pink envelope into a mail box, then follow it through the delivery system to a house in suburban New Jersey.

It's a well appointed, comfortable home, but it's a lonely place. Sitting there, looking lost and confused, is Don Johnston (Bill Murray), waiting for his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) to say goodbye, pick up her bags and walk out the door. "Maybe I'll call you sometime," she says, but you know she doesn't mean it.

You may feel sorry for Don, but only momentarily. He's been in this scene before, and it has most likely always been his fault. He's a self-admitted lady's man; he would call himself a Lothario. No woman in her right mind would stay with him.

By the time he gets around to sifting through his mail, he's unconsciously brought it next door, to the home of his pal Winston (Jeffrey Wright, in an uncharacteristic and perfectly played comic role). Don is ostensibly there to help Winston with some computer problem, but it's likely that he just enjoys hanging around a mostly happy home where a man has a wife and a passel of kids.

The pink letter is from a woman who says that Don is the father of their 19-year-old son, and that the son is out on the road hoping to meet him. The letter is also unsigned. This leaves the already expressionless Don with even less of an expression on his face, but it prompts enthusiastic Winston, who is obsessed by whodunits and mysteries in general, to put into motion a plan that will send Don on a trip to visit his old flames and figure out who wrote the letter.

He doesn't tell Don about this until he's assembled an itinerary -- plane tickets, hotel reservations, rental cars, MapQuest printouts, et al. He presents it to him in a caf & eacute; scene that could have been pulled right out of Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes. Soon, a befuddled Don is on the road.

The idea is to go to the homes of the handful of women that could have mothered his child -- without telling them -- and see what happens. It's quite a stretch to believe that Johnston could have been so involved with all of these women who are so completely different from each other. Sharon Stone, for example, is a combination of sad and happy; her daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena) is aptly named. Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is stuck in an unhappy marriage. Jessica Lange is uncommunicative. As for Tilda Swinton (unrecognizable under her black bangs and with an American accent) -- well, let's just say it wasn't a very good idea to stop in on her.

The mood goes back and forth from light to melancholy, with these scenes broken up by shots of the road. Jarmusch fills the film with extended silences, with Murray just sitting there thinking -- at home, in an airport, on a bus. Jarmusch goes to the well a few too many times with this but scores with a beautifully staged sequence of Murray, photographed from behind, on a motel balcony, staring out as life on the highway swishes by in front of him. And Jarmusch nicely punctuates the leisurely pace with a couple of dream sequences that are shot in oversaturated colors.

Murray is perfect in the part -- hardly speaking, saying everything with his body language, gazing hopefully at basketball hoops in the yards of some places he visits, wordlessly wondering if they were used by his boy, silently thinking to himself when someone of the right age passes him in the street, "Could it be him?"

But he's done similar roles in Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (in which he finds out he's the father of a young man). No doubt, people are sending the right scripts to him, because he plays the parts so well. But it's probably time that he goes after another sardonic comedy. Many of us miss that part of Bill Murray.

Broken Flowers, Rated: R, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Jessica Lange.

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