The Brothers Bloom: Ain’t the Con Game Grand?

Posted on 03 June 2009 by HansKlopek

Hans back here with more Below Radar-ness

the_brothers_bloom_stillThe second that the lights went up on Rian Johnson’s directorial debut, Brick, a very important question crossed my mind: how does a guy follow up a movie that is this original and good?

Indeed, Brick kind of blew my mind. A high school crime movie where the characters speak as if they’ve lept from the pages of Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler, it worked at a level of originality and vision that I’ve seldom seen from a young director. It possessed the wit and intelligence of its forefathers, but also brought a hell of a lot of energy and suspense to the table as well. It was obvious that Johnson had the goods, but taking micro-budget success and trying to replicate it at the next level is a common pratfall of young directors.

Where Johnson gets it right in his sophmore effort, The Brothers Bloom, is not to try to remake Brick (which he made for half a mil in his hometown) but to locate its energy and some of its themes in another story. Here Johnson lays his attention to con men, those authors of scams and heartbreaks who spend their time crafting the perfect narrative out of a crime. In Brick, the characters spoke in the romanticized tones of pop culture storytelling. In The Brothers Bloom, storytelling is the methodology by which the lead characters structure their lives.

That isn’t to say that everyone is happy about this. Indeed, the brothers Bloom couldn’t be more opposite when it comes to their takes on the con game. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is sly and calculating, enamored with his own ability to direct human behavoir as a master storyteller. Bloom (Adrien Brody) finds the ugly side of this: if he is forever a character in one of Stephen’s con games, then will he ever experience anything to call his own?

Probably not, which sends Bloom off on a journey for self-discovery at the beginning of the story. He winds up in the-brothers-bloom1Montenegro, drinking his days away until Stephen and their very silent partner, Bang Bang (Rinko Kickuchi) come a ringing with an idea for one last job. An easy mark that will ensure the gang a boatload of retirement cash.

The mark is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric New Jersey heiress whom Stephen intends to sweep off her feet and then leave in the dirt deprived of a few million. The wooer in this case will be Bloom, who jumps back into his brother’s regime reluctantly, but is quickly striking up a sweet rapport with Penelope, a shut-in whose lonely life up to this point has seen both incomporable luxury and incomporable isolation.

That isn’t to say she doesn’t have spunk. In their first meeting, Penelope tells Bloom “I see people do things and then I get books and figure out how to do them myself.” In the film’s funniest sequence, she demonstrates this by playing piano, violin, guitar, dropping hip hop beats, juggling, and riding a thirty foot unicycle while Bloom looks up at her worriedly. She has no real family to speak of, and when Bloom mentions that he and his brother are in the antique business and on their way to Europe, she invites herself along.

When she has a moonlit encounter with a peculiar Frenchman (Robbie Coltrane) who seems to know the brothers’ past, she get suspicious of their intentions. But soon she is lead to believe that they are actually not con men, but ex-antique smugglers. She becomes fixated on the idea of starting up her own smuggling ring with the brothers, and they set out to steal an ancient prayer book from Coltrane and sell it on the black market. Meanwhile, Bloom and Penelope start to fall in love, which Stephen maintains is completely out of step with the plan, but Bloom can’t help it…

the-brothers-bloomAfter this the plot gets kind of crazy but never so crazy that you can’t keep up. Much of it involves possible double crosses or possible con tricks by Stephen to get people out of the game or whatever. The brothers’ mentor, Diamond Dog (Maxmillian Schell) also makes an appearance and we wonder if he is planning a set up. Then there is a shootout involving some Russians and a number of car bombs. I’m making all of this sound slightly ridiculous, but it is a credit to Johnson’s screenplay that it never gets out of control; there is an emotional base to the story that you can follow even if you are struggling to keep up with the plot. I was fascinated by the characters.

The relationship of the brothers is well handled by Johnson and his two leads. A prologue sequence tells us that Stephen and Bloom have been there for each other their whole lives and have taken care of each other through foster homes and other hurtles. Ruffalo and Brody really sell this closeness well; when things go bad, Bloom seems to close his eyes and hope that it is all just a trick that Stephen has set up. Too often in movies I see brotherly relationships that hit on the same overtones of disdain and hatred. It is refreshing to see one where the brothers seem to genuinely need each other.

Rachel Weisz is both extremely fun and extremely complex in this film. We understand that she is an eccentric shut-in and that she needs an air of adventure in her life, but neither Johnson or Weisz stop there; they understand that there is a real sadness underlying her character. Weisz could have reduced this down to a straight comic performance, existing only for laughs and quirks. She actually builds a real character and creates quite a sweet romance with Brody who, after Hollywoodland and The Darjeeling Limited, is becoming more and more fascinating in these roles of lost, early 30s misfits.

One of the best things I can say about this movie is that it had the capacity to be all style, but Johnson respects his story and tells it with grace and seriousness.  I felt the same way about Brick. The idea of film noir set in a high school could be ripe for comedy, but Johnson played it earnest and came out with a great film. The Brothers Bloom isn’t quite as good, but it has the same energy and inventive appeal. I was afraid that Johnson’s jump from freshman to sophmore film would be a little steep. He seems to have come out well with a film that is as enjoyable as it is well made. I heartily anticipate his third film.                           

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