Buying a ticket for a movie about con men is like placing a bet in a game of three-card monte. On some level, you expect to be hoodwinked, and can’t count on winning your money back. Instead, you pay for a sleight-of-hand demonstration, so the hustler (or the filmmaker) can dupe you as long as he's got the skills.
Where the vast majority of con movies tries to bamboozle the audience, The Brothers Bloom seems intent on not tricking viewers. Writer/director Rian Johnson focuses more closely on explaining the long con and the dynamics between the title characters, which is a lot less fun. Even though you see through Johnson’s schemes, Bloom’s ingratiating cast and sunny tone make the film a harmless diversion.
Mark Ruffalo is the elder brother, Stephen, a perpetually cheerful planner who concocts elaborate swindles. His younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) forever plays the leading role in the scams, as his innately sensitive nature elicits the trust of their wealthy marks. Bloom tires of taking advantage and playacting, until the brothers’ conflicts resemble the tension between a reluctant actor and a demanding writer/stage manager. “I’ve only lived my life in the roles you write for me,” Bloom complains, and Brody’s sad-eyed performance wins the audience’s sympathies.
The Brothers Bloom’s visual style works against its ability to trick the audience. Johnson clearly emulates the Coen Brothers' and Wes Anderson’s glossy, impeccable worlds that evoke classic movie styles but have little resemblance to reality. A prologue introduces the two brothers as orphaned kids and shows how they first fleece the “playground bourgeoisie.” The voice-over comes from Ricky Jay, legendary cardsharp and a mainstay of David Mamet’s confidence movies. Jay's narration even rhymes to emphasize the storybook artifice.
Throughout the film, new exotic locales, like Montenegro or Prague, first appear as one of the brothers’ sketches of a landscape or skyline before dissolving into the real thing. The characters’ hats pay homage to comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy, while the ascots and steamships nod to caper movies of the Technicolor 1950s and ’60s. Every shot and every moment feels so overdetermined that the film never has enough spontaneity for the audience to let its guard down. Even the film’s comedic heist scene feels like an afterthought.
Fortunately, the film contains beguiling female leads. Stephen coaxes Bloom to one last con that targets Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an accident-prone New Jersey heiress. When Bloom tries to insinuate himself into her life, she explains “I collect hobbies,” and we see a montage of Penelope demonstrating her useless talents, from playing banjo to juggling chainsaws. As the brothers manipulate Penelope into participating in a bogus smuggling venture, Weisz offers a fresh interpretation of a screwball poor little rich girl. She doesn’t crank up the volume on Penelope’s quirks, so the character’s choices and enthusiasms seem to take her by surprise.
Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, an Oscar nominee for Babel) proves even more appealing as the brothers’ unspeaking partner and nitroglycerin expert. With red gloves, deadpan stares and bad-ass poses, Bang Bang becomes an instant icon of cool. Whenever there’s a change of scene, one immediately looks to see what Bang Bang’s wearing and doing. The director and audience alike seem more interested in what she’s up to in the margins, instead of what’s happening in the foreground.
Johnson made an intriguing debut in 2006 with Brick, a twisty drama that combined the high school genre with the 1940s detective story, down to the anachronistic dialogue. However mannered, Brick had heart, where much of Bloom seems locked in the filmmaker’s head. To compare Johnson’s work to the oeuvre of another twee auteur: If Brick is the equivalent of Wes Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, The Brothers Bloom resembles Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and not just for the casting of Brody and the use of sibling rivalry and period pop songs. The artifice trumps the characterizations, and Johnson has yet to unify them with a modern classic like Rushmore. At least The Brothers Bloom proves he has no shortage of confidence.
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