The Brothers Bloom (2009, USA, Rian Johnson)
The Brothers Bloom is sassy, savvy, sexy, funny and surprisingly affecting. Adriotly written, expertly directed, amusing self-reflective, and filled with a capable and intelligent cast, this is one of the best Hollywood releases of the year.
Writer/director Rian Johnson tips his hand early on in The Brothers Bloom, when elder brother Stephen, played with pinache by the rakish Mark Ruffalo, describes the perfect con as being one where everyone, including the mark himself, gets exactly what he wants. As we shall see, as cinematic metaphors go, this one proves pretty astute. The film's protagonists are two lifelong fraternal scam artists, the aforementioned Stephen, the tandem's criminal and narrative mastermind, and his younger sibling Bloom, the eternal love interest, played expertly by the puppy-eyed Adrien Brody. The third wheel of this conspiratorial crew is the mostly mute Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) an explosives expert who also happens to be master of the sarcastically cutting glare.
Things really get rolling in the film when we are introduced to the trio's latest mark, a reclusive, gifted, eccentric and beautiful heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Luring the talented and intelligent but socially awkward Stamp into their ruse proves challenging, but to risk a grizzly mixed metaphor, once she's on board, Penelope chomps down hard on the bit between her lips. Which is not to say Weisz is in any way equine, not at all. If fact, Weisz is stunning throughout, and appears to be having the time of her life in this film, her childlike enthusiasm for the life of smuggling that the brothers have in store for her evident in every squeal and joyful leap. And as Weisz is in many ways the audience's proxy for this narrative, it is fitting that her unrelenting excitement mirrors our own. This film is one helluva joyride.
Brody, on the other hand, is a melancholy soul looking for meaning in his all too well-scripted life. His innately doleful expressions are well-matched to the part, which aims to tap into everyman's existential crisis. Bloom has no sense of self because of a life spent acting out parts created in his brother's elaborate narratives, and yearns for the sort of meaning and purpose that can only be found in an unscripted life. Yet, when he is not working on a con, he becomes inert, passively passing time in a hammock on an island off the coast of Montenegro. He only becomes active in his life--quite literally, an actor in his life--when he is inside his brother's narratives. It is through action that the actor has purpose. And it is one of The Brother's Bloom's most impressive achievements that as it darts from one exotic locale to the next, the intricately woven plot never threatens to obliterate the nuances of this fascinating three-way character study.
While I enjoyed Johnson's debut exercise in neo-noir, Brick, he raises his game significantly in The Brothers Bloom. While Brick was fun in a film school assignment sort of way ("Imagine yourself using all the conventions of a film noir, but setting it in a seedy contemporary high school, with all the teenagers copping the requisite 40s era lingo") Johnson's has honed his skills as writer and director considerably in the four years between films. As Brick showed, Johnson is a well-versed student of film, and here he gives a holler out to some of the wittily plotted con man games of yesteryear, like The Sting or, more recently, The Grifters, as well showing off hstylistically and thematically referencing the efforts of contemporary filmmakers such as Wes Anderson. After all, the film is populated by a collection of oddball orphans whose connection allows them to form a wacky alternative to the family unit they missed out on. Further, Johnson's use of montage as humourous character exposition is taken straight out of the Anderson handbook, while his attention to detail in his meticulous set and shot designs recall a similar affinity in the work of Anderson. And while admitting that the comps to Anderson have merit, the filmmaker I am also reminded of here is Christopher Nolan. Like Johnson, he made his breakthrough with his sophomore effort, Memento, but more pertinently, in The Prestige he delved into the world of magic and scam artists in order to make some sly comments about these world's similarities to those of his chosen craft. The Brothers Bloom mines a similar vein, but in its own sassy way, and in Johnson's own distinctive and engaging way. The film is worthy of mention in the company of all these fine films.
In the end, despite a pacing problem in the film's protracted third act, The Brother's Bloom pulls it all together for an affecting and emotionally resonant finale. If it is Johnson's wish that he be seen as having pulled off the perfect con where everyone, from cast to crew, studio executives to critics, filmmaker to audience, gets exactly what they want out of this film, I am happy to report that he has pulled it off. The Brothers Bloom proves one terrific piece of cinematic legerdemain.