Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
Bill Murray, as in Lost in Translation, displays a minimalist style of acting in Jim Jarmusch’s haunting film, his burnt-out, aging Casanova appearing almost catatonic at times. Murray is Don Johnston (“No, not that Don Johnson, it’s spelled with a ‘t’.”), once a computer tycoon who has made such a mint that he no longer has to worry about money. His current girl friend Sherry (Julie Delpy) has walked out on him. He seems no more fazed than if he had lost a shoe or a scarf. He sits on his couch listening to music, trying to decide whether or not to drink a glass of wine. His best (and we suspect only) friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a happily married family man from Ethiopia working three jobs, tries to console him by suggesting that now Don can start over again.
What does lead Don to start over is a letter in a pink envelope that arrives. Don shows little curiosity, but Winston cannot leave it alone. He fancies himself as an amateur detective, and here is a case that cries out for action. Finally, when Don opens and reads it, he learns that he has a 19 year-old son who has left home and might be looking for him. The letter is unsigned, and there is no return address. Don would do nothing about the letter, but goaded by the mystery-loving Winston, he comes up with a list of the four most likely candidates from his past who might have partnered with him to produce a son. Using the Internet, Winston discovers the addresses of the four, and so Don sets forth on the road to track them down. Don’s journey takes him around the country, he always arriving with a bouquet of pink flowers, as suggested by Winston.
Laura (Sharon Stone), single mother of what must be a carbon of her younger self, the teenaged Lolita (Alexis Dziena), now working as a closet organizer, but still as sexy as ever. Laura was glad to see her old flame again, but not Dora (Frances Conroy), now living in a McMansion with her wealthy husband; she is very uneasy with him, and even more so when her husband comes home and invites Don to stay for dinner. Carmen (Jessica Lange) is a pet communicator, so busy with her practice that she barely can give Don five minutes of her precious time, and unwilling to meet with him later. Last, and most deadly to Don’s health is Penny (Tilda Swinton), now a biker babe living way out in the sticks and married to a suspicious husband with a hair-trigger temper, so that when Don asks if she could be the mother of their son, she screams, hubby comes running and beats up on Don. There is a fifth candidate, but Don visits her at her grave, where he solemnly leaves the flowers.
The last scene is very enigmatic, leaving us with the question of what Don would do if he found either the son or the identity of the mother. The fact that this lonely former hedonist took to the road at all represents some progress. We wonder how Don could ever have made such romantic conquests, and yet we see after Don has been beaten another woman whom he meets, attracted to Don and binding up his wounds. There must have been something in him that drew women, and we can but hope that maybe he will re-enter the world of feeling, if not romance—though we will not hold our breath waiting for it to happen. About the only time we see Don come really alive is when he is teasing Winston’s young daughter. Maybe he needs to visit them more often. Don could very well have penned the opening words of Ecclesiastes, had he been a poet. Would that he had the faith of the ancient poet that keeps the spirit alive and the soul still believing, despite having discovered the futility of all human endeavor.