The Brothers Bloom
Director : Rian Johnson
Screenplay : Rian Johnson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Rachel Weisz (Penelope Stamp), Adrien Brody (Bloom), Mark Ruffalo (Stephen), Rinko Kikuchi (Bang Bang), Robbie Coltrane (The Curator), Maximilian Schell (Diamond Dog), Ricky Jay (Narrator), Zachary Gordon (Young Bloom), Max Records (Young Stephen), Andy Nyman (Charleston), Noah Segan (The Duke), Nora Zehetner (Rose)
As the follow-up to Brick (2005), his auspicious directorial debut, Rian Johnson has shifted tones but not gears in his sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom. Brick, a gumshoe murder-mystery with ’40s-era dialogue that was inexplicably set in a contemporary California high school, was a cineaste-pleasing mash-up that might best be described as straight-faced neo-noir parody (the awkwardness of that phrase should suggest just how hard its pleasures are to describe). He does something similar here, mixing time periods and styles, although he drops the straight-face routine and plays it for laughs, tweaking our expectations of a well-worn genre while fulfilling many of them at the same time.
We are introduced to the titular sibling con-man team of Stephen and Bloom as young orphans who plan an elaborate ruse to rob their small town’s overprivileged community of children. Although they are close brothers who have relied on each other their whole lives, the older Stephen and the younger Bloom couldn’t be any more different, with the former being a brash, headstrong, utterly confident grifter in love with his own abilities and the latter being a reserved, morally confounded accomplice who is constantly trying to run away from that which he does best. He can never get away for long, and when we meet the brothers as adults, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is drawing Bloom (Adrien Brody) out of his self-imposed isolation on Montenegro to pull off the fabled “one last job,” which centers on an extraordinarily wealthy, but extremely secluded heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Penelope rarely leaves her stately New Jersey mansion and instead spends her time alone “collecting hobbies,” which range from such ordinary endeavors as classical guitar and karate to more extreme antics like juggling chainsaws on a super-tall unicycle.
As with all con-artist tales, nothing is quite what it seems and you can’t trust what anyone says or what his or her motives might be, which Johnson uses with all his might to string along his ever-expanding narrative. Penelope is the mark, but she doesn’t remain so for long because she is so enticed by the idea of going on an adventure that she ultimately becomes the brothers’ accomplice (even though at times she’s still the mark). Although the brothers are ostensibly the main characters, it is Penelope who gives the film its life with her daft peculiarities and innocent, girlish enthusiasms. Weisz plays her with just the right balance of goof and sweetness, making her an obvious heir to the screwball heroines of an earlier era. She also plays as perfect counter to the brothers’ main accomplice, a mute Japanese explosions expert named Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who spends most of her time playing straight (wo)man to the brothers’ antics (some of the film’s biggest laughs come from simply watching her bored expressions in the background).
Johnson, who both wrote and directed the film, immediately establishes its light, jaunty tone, which is more than a little reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s trademark quirk in everything from the droll slapstick timing, to the fast zooms to funny details, to the love of anything handwritten or -drawn (the manner in which the brothers write out their cons like a map reminded me of Owen Wilson’s 50-year plan in Bottle Rocket). For those like me who have grown tired of Anderson’s increasingly oppressive style, such mimicry might be cause for concern, but Johnson uses it with a consistent deftness that gives his film a breezy touch without letting it become either too shallow or too self-absorbed. Some have complained that there are too many cons in the film and that they start to wear thin by the end, but that may be precisely the point: Johnson is using the punishing nature of con after con after con to invoke in the viewer precisely what Bloom is feeling when he complains of living “a scripted life.”
The presence of professional con artist, magician, and David Mamet regular Ricky Jay as the film’s off-screen narrator also hints at Johnson’s ambitions, as The Brothers Bloom sometimes plays like a collision between Mamet’s two sides: think House of Games (1987) played with the comedic timing of State and Main (2000). Yet, the film is ultimately Johnson’s, and if it doesn’t always work quite as well as it should, it is still a confident and even touching bit of genre twisting, with its best moments providing plenty of anticipation for what else Johnson has up his sleeve.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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