Grade: A-

Bill Murray has honed his shtick down to such nearly infinitesimal proportions as Don Johnston (yes, the name joke comes up repeatedly), the lugubrious protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful “Broken Flowers,” that at times he appears to be earning laughs by sheer impassivity. But appearances are deceiving. Like Jack Benny before him, Murray has learned that less is often more–and here he uses that knowledge brilliantly to play like a virtuoso on both the heartstrings and the funnybone. The result is this year’s “Sideways,” another deftly humorous portrait of a min in mid-life crisis; this time, though, he’s laconic rather than voluble and malaise-ridden rather than hyper.

But this is no one-man show; Murray also has excellent material, and a superb supporting cast, to work with. I’ve never been the greatest fan of Jarmusch’s work, which has always struck me as precious and almost smugly quirky. But as the advertising tagline of the movie says, sometimes life brings some strange surprises, and here the writer-director weds his penchant for the offbeat with a strong, even touching narrative arc. As the story opens, Johnston, a dour, aging Lothario who’s made it big in computers, sullenly watches his live-in girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leave him. Simultaneously he receives an anonymous letter from one of the many romantic attachments of his younger days, informing him that he has a hitherto-unknown nineteen-year old son who’s left home and might just show up on his doorstep. Don’s next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), his closest friend and an amateur sleuth, insists that Johnston use the boy’s age to calculate the old flames who might have written such a letter, and then not only tracks down the women’s addresses but plots an itinerary for Don to visit each of them. Johnston reluctantly agrees, and thus makes the re-acquaintance of four long-forgotten squeezes: Laura (Sharon Stone), a flashy widow with a exhibitionist teen daughter (Alexis Dziena) aptly named Lolita (Laura’s race-car driver was killed in a crash, and she now makes ends meet by arranging clients’ closets); Dora (Frances Conroy), a mousy type who, with hubby Ron (Christopher McDonald), runs a real-estate agency specializing in sterile pre-fab developments; Carmen (Jessica Lange), an animal therapist who claims to be able to hear what troubled pets are saying and who has a strangely up-tight assistant (Chloe Sevigny); and Penny (Tilda Swinton), a harridan living on a remote farm whose even more disreputable husband shows Don in no uncertain terms that he’s unwelcome. Don returns home no wiser about his son’s identity than when he began, but in the final reel he’s shown reaching out to try to contact him–though in a typically ambiguous, uncertain fashion.

“Broken Flowers” ostensibly concerns parents and children, but what it’s really about are failed dreams, dimmed hopes and a struggle, however late and improbable, against loneliness and regret. Don Johnston’s quest is supposedly for information, but it actually represents a man’s journey through his own past, and his recognition of his mistakes and the bleakness of a future without any human connections save those of a superficial kind. Putting things in those terms, though, makes the picture sound like a heavy-handed exercise in profundity. It does, in fact, treat of serious matters, but in a delightfully quirky and curiously affecting way. And in Murray it has the perfect center. With droll understatement and an almost preternatural imperturbability, registering his reactions with the slightest turn of lip or raising of an eyebrow, delivering his lines in flawless deadpan style, he fashions a character that seems aloof but is actually strangely compelling; he even pulls off a potentially overripe scene in which he visits the grave of a dead former girlfriend without a trace of the maudlin quality that might easily have infected it. And he provides the perfect foil for his more energetic co-stars. Wright is a charming instigator, and Stone, Conroy and Lange make the most of their relatively short turns as Don’s past flings. (Swinton, unfortunately, is given less screen time and though suitably ferocious, manages less of an impression.) Delpy is cooly seductive as Johnston’s latest, and Dziena has a ball as the ditzily forward Lolita. On the male side, McDonald does his overeager shtick to decent effect as Ron, while Mark Webber strikes an appropriately peculiar, yet not unattractive, note as a footloose kid Don encounters toward the close. The package is completed with simple but crisp cinematography from Frederick Elmes and a loose, jazzy score by Mulatu Astatke.

But in the end despite all the picture’s many felicities, it’s Murray you’re likely to remember most about “Broken Flowers.” With consummate skill he’ll make you really care about this man whom you might have been inclined to dismiss as a slick, selfish guy deserving of his fate, and he gives Jarmusch’s wry, wise but fragile fable a degree of heft that takes it to a higher level. With Murray at its center, these “Flowers” truly bloom.