A film review by Craig J. Koban November 2, 2009
2009, PG-13, 113 mins.
2009, PG-13, 113 mins.
Brody / Stephen: Mark
Ruffalo / Penelope: Rachel
Weisz / Bang Bang: Rinko Kikuchi / Diamond Dog: Maximilian Schell
Melville: Robbie Coltrane / Narrator: Ricky
Part DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, part THE STING, and with a sprinkle of James Joyce’s ULYSSES and Homer’s THE ODYSSEY, Rian Johnson’s THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a highly distinctive con film that certainly typifies the wit, creativity, and flair of its maker. As much as the film seems borrowed from its cinematic and literary predecessors, it ultimately feels novel and unique.
Maryland-born, 36-year-old director is perhaps best known for his
critically lauded freshman effort, BRICK,
which, despite its low budget (around $500,000) and lack of high tech
resources, was as inspired and inventive as any film from 2006.
It was a teen-centric high school film, but what Johnson did was
insidiously clever: he transplanted the typical norms of these types of
adolescent-fuelled genre films into a crime- noir inspired drama,
complete with characters that share the same tough talking and lyrical
inflections as the characters of Dashiell Hammett.
I thought that BRICK was one of the best debut films in a young
time, highlighting a filmmaker that had an unlimited imagination and
BROTHERS BLOOM certainly is not as innovative
and daring as BRICK (like many new and highly promising filmmaking
talents, Johnson may, no doubt, become the victim of the sophomore
jinx). As far as con man/crime capers go, the film resides itself
fairly comfortably within the conventions of the genre: We have a couple of wily and inordinately clever and
persuasive con artists; lush locales; a love interest that becomes the
target of their next big score (that inevitably makes securing the score
that much more difficult when one becomes smitten with her); and, of
course, a whole lot of tension, intrigue, and plot twist after plot twist
that is designed to keep viewers on the tips of their toes throughout.
Without much reservation on my part, it's easy to see THE BROTHERS
BLOOM – at face value – as a fairly paint-by-numbers caper film.
Where it separates itself from its more rudimentary elements is with its tone and look. THE BROTHERS BLOOM is neither too dark and unsettling as a crime thriller nor too light hearted and jovial as an affable and easygoing buddy flick. What Johnson does so well is to blend a screwball comedic sensibility alongside the accoutrements of a suspense drama and, much as he demonstrated with BRICK, he shows how adept he is at taking highly divergent material and morphing it into a satisfyingly cohesive whole. Even better, THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a film that shows the fascination and adoration that its maker has with his influences. Much like a Quentin Tarantino, Johnson’s work reflects his ardent passion for the cinema as he brings an incredible knowledge of classic crime/caper films of the past and, instead of just lazily paying homage to them, he toys and tinkers with them to fit his storytelling needs.
finer is how Johnson slyly gives the film a sense of timelessness:
it neither feels of today or yesterday, but rather a hybrid of both. He
creates a universe that does not feel tangibly like any we live in as it has pieces of
past thrown in together to create a
world that looks like the present, but feels like the past.
Johnson’s con men wear bowler hats and derbies, have a fresh vernacular that
seems both borrowed and new, and even their names and motives are
reflected in the works of Joyce and Dostoevsky. The brothers in the
film, named Stephen and Bloom, are obviously inspired by two of
Joyce’s personas, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in ULYSSES.
Furthermore, a female character in the film, fastidiously loyal to Bloom,
is also echoed in Joyce’s character of Molly, who in turn was influenced by
Odysseus’ loyal wife, Penelope, in Homer’s ODYSSEY.
Even the characters in THE BROTHERS BLOOM, at one point, hatch a
devious con that one aptly describes as having eerie similarities to those
in Russian novels. The point here
is simple, but pervasive: Johnson gives the film layers of sophistication
residing beneath its veneer of a routine con/comedy/thriller.
He asks viewers to sit up and acknowledge its influences as opposed
to just passively watching the film.
the film’s opening we're introduced to Stephen (as an adult played by
Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom
(Adrien Brody) as kids that have been rejected by 38 sets of foster
parents. Stephen is the conveying cynic of the pair, whereas Bloom is
more of a hopeless romantic that seems destined to forever live with a
lonely heart. Of course, the
two become con men as they mature into adulthood, partly to facilitate
Stephen’s own misanthropic nature and perhaps more for Stephen to impart
a level of meaning into Bloom’s somewhat empty existence.
As we flash-forward to the pair in the present they are among the
most respected con men in the business, but leading a duplicitous
lifestyle for decades has had dire effects on Bloom.
Most people live one sort of “life,” but Bloom has allowed
himself to partake in a multitude of them. All he wants, with every
ounce of his being, is to shed his largely made-up existence for good.
He desires an unwritten life, which is not as easy as it
sounds, mostly because all that Bloom has know for 30-plus years is how to
lie and cheat people.
course, Bloom prophetically declares that “he’s out” of his thieving
ways for good, but his
brother will have nothing of it. He
does concede to Bloom that he’s okay with him retiring, but he wants him
to retire with one obligatory last con (because if you going to
retire, do it in style). Assisted
by their loyal sidekick - an expert in anything explosive, an “artist
with nitro-glycerin” - Bang Bang (BABEL’s Oscar nominated Rinko
Kikuchi, who says next to nothing in the film, but conveys a considerable
amount of presence with her largely mute role), the siblings decide to
hone in on a lonely, but filthy-stinking-rich heiress named Penelope
(Rachel Weisz, rarely as lovably ditzy and high spirited as she is here).
Penelope is no ordinary billionaire: she's a self-described
“epileptic photographer” that likes to collect hobbies of just about
every kind (revealed in a very funny montage).
As odd and kooky as Penelope may be, Stephen nonetheless persuades
Bloom to impregnate himself in her life to begin a highly complicated swan
song scam, which the pair has prepped with a calculating precision.
Unfortunately for Bloom, he begins to fall for the lass in
question, which makes it that much harder to screw her out of her money.
from the very opening moments (which involves a voiceover narration from
the great Ricky Jay), THE BROTHERS BLOOM all but announces to viewers
that it is not a film to be taken literally in the real world.
Instead, this is a film of multiple disciplines that
creates a marvelously stylized world for its characters. Using sumptuous and painterly cinematography, a
resoundingly acute eye for editing and camera moves, and Nathan Johnson’s
invigorating, but discretely beautiful musical score, Rian Johnson allows
his film to breathe with considerably more atmosphere than many recent
con/heist flicks. Combined
with that is how well he intersperses a nice underplayed romantic essence
in the story (the relationship between Bloom and Penelope is predictable,
but the actors never allow it to ring falsely) while augmenting it with
jaunty and sharply dialogue exchanges, an offbeat sense of adventure,
and audience teasing suspense. Like
all great con flicks, THE BROTHERS BLOOM does a thoroughly decent job of
making viewers think that they have the entire plot solved when they really
film is also greatly assisted by the uniformly assured acting.
Mark Ruffalo pulls out a performance that sort of echoes Orson Welles’
turn in THE THIRD MAN, playing a
character that, underneath it all, should command our hatred and spite,
but is so unreservedly charming and urbane that you can’t help but root
for him (even when you don’t want to).
Rachel Weisz has a very tricky job of blending low-key sex appeal
with an infectiously goofy and clumsy receptivity.
She positively radiates a childlike enthusiasm throughout the film. The film’s real standout is Brody as the existentially
melancholic Bloom, whose mostly somber character acts as a nice foil
against the bubbly joviality of Weisz’s role.
The way Brody centers himself so squarely inside the tortured
ironies of this man is quietly powerful: this is a figure that wants an
escape from a lifestyle that, more or less, has sustained him for decades.
He knows that as long as Stephen spins fictitious roles for him to
play in their schemes that his ability to release himself from them will
become increasingly more challenging.
I like it when a film finds a dark undercurrent to a fairly
light-hearted story without it feeling like it’s over-telegraphed or
bombarding the audience.
The compelling angle of the film is the whole dynamic between Bloom and Penelope. She's a somewhat naive figure that craves for the type of novel adventures that Bloom has experienced. He wants to eliminate any sense of scripted adventure to his existence, but she craves for it. This adds an intriguing angle to their somewhat conventional relationship: Is she really just a social butterfly that is foolhardy and unaware that she is being conned by the man she grows to love or does she know she’s being fooled and simple has grown not to care because she's having so much fun? The way Brody and Weisz invest in these contradictory personas (at least to each other) elevates the somewhat perfunctory nature of their romance.
THE BROTHERS BLOOM mildly suffers, however, from a few faults, like an ending that feels fairly incomprehensible (Johnson perhaps spins a few too many twists and turns for the film’s own good in its final twenty minutes, not to mention that the climax itself is puzzling when it comes to interpreting what actually happened). There have also been many that have criticized the film for being too smugly self-conscious and mannered. However, I think that it’s Johnson's filmmaking indulgence itself that pays rich dividends: his caper effortlessly blends the finer elements of offbeat romance, absurdist comedy, thrilling adventure, and just enough human pathos to make its characters have a real weight and emotional veracity. More crucially, though, THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a blissful and sincere ode to its maker’s geeked-out appreciation of the film’s that influenced him. Displaying a fruitful imagination, a wry and refined eye, and a whimsical panache, Johnson’s a filmmaker who does not sheepishly hide behind style, but rather freely lets it loose with a carefree spontaneity and dynamism. In many ways, he's as deceptively skilled as the Brothers Bloom themselves.