After the cult success of Rian Johnson‘s debut feature, the stylish high-school noir, Brick, A-list stars and a much bigger budget were sure to follow. The Brothers Bloom was filmed in a variety European and North American locations and things look fabulously bright and breezy on the big screen. Unfortunately, a mild case of the sophomore slump is in place, as the new con artist caper film never quite lives up to the promise of its opening moments and gets mired down a bit by cleverness for cleverness sake. It would be unfair to tag the film with the hubris of Guy Richie’s Revolver because it seems clear that Johnson was aiming for a whimsical light-hearted touch, but the film unfortunately does share glossy posturing and pseudo intellectual chest thumping whilst simultaneously lacking any desired emotional (or intellectual) payoff. Things are fun enough while the film unspools, but there is no sense of click (like with Brick) and the whole affair is simply forgettable by the time the end credits have finished rolling.
The film opens very promising however. A delightful voice-over narration from magician extraordinaire Ricky Jay, whose interesting speech rhythms (on display in most David Mamet films, but also in the opening set-up for P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia) set the stage for the bubbly confidence caper film to follow. An image of an amputee kitten pushing itself in a roller skate along the candy-coloured main street in small town America makes things clear that the tonal territory is more Terry Gilliam than David Gordon Green. I suspect the folks who hate the recent onslaught of quirk in film, (for instance, the scene in The Life Aquatic where the crew deal with the Philippine pirates) will be sharpening their knives for The Brothers Bloom in the same way that Juno felt the quirk backlash.
The opening moments have youngling versions of the brothers in full grifter regalia, rumpled black and white suits with hats to match, overcoming their orphan (ostracized outsider) status by swindling the other (”bourgeois!”) children of their dollars and cents. The ‘prestige’ of the opening sting may just be the biggest zing moment of the film. Genius like that (I won’t spoil!) is why the genre exists! But it is a somewhat bumpy downhill ride after that. Cut to the Brothers in their mid 30s, now played by Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo, plying their trade across Europe. Steven (Ruffalo) writes the script and Bloom (Brody) plays the main part of their schemes. This involves ever more elaborate ’stories’ (their terminology for the grift) to insert themselves into and profit from mightily. It seems it is as much about the art and construction of the event as it is the reward. Stephen thinks nothing of incorporating literary references and ‘placement into the frame’ positioning into the construction of his ‘work.’ Somewhere along the way they’ve picked up demolitions expert Bang-Bang (a nearly unrecognizable Rinko Kikuchi who was so vulnerable in Babel and riotously cocky here) who doesn’t speak much, but has a kick-ass wardrobe and and can seemingly disappear and reappear at will which she does. Often. Also, they have alienated their former colleague and mentor, the flamboyant Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell channeling Christopher Lee). Somewhere along the way their rival has become a full blown enemy. Most critically, all is not well between the brothers tensions cause them to split until Stephen (Ruffalo) comes back with a ‘final job.’ Enter the mark, an eccentric American billionaire named Penelope Stamp, played by Rachel Weisz in a kookier manner than even in the early Mummy pictures. Penelope is a bit of a chameleon herself, she collects hobbies as far ranging as jugging chainsaws on a unicycle to making pinhole cameras out of hollowed out watermelons. She is very hard on her yellow Lamborghini, which serves as the engineered ‘meet-cute’ and start of the convoluted con which will span continents and involve rare books, Russian wire transfers and Steamship voyages.
I have a real soft spot for con-artist movies, both funny and serious. The genre is pretty flexible. I also love the films of Wes Anderson, whom the tone and aesthetics of this film cannot help but evoke. In the most facile way, I might be tempted to describe The Brothers Bloom with the short hand of The Royal Tenenbaums meets Dirty Rotten Scoundrels meets Joe vs. The Volcano. But it lacks the human heart of Tenenbaums, the saucy cruelty of Scoundrels the aw-shucks of Joe. Familiar yes, as good, no. Some folks may end up loving this movie dear to their hearts and forgive it its glaring flaws. While the movie was interesting enough as it chugs along, the strain caused by the mixture of silly and serious was a hindrance. In Brick, Joseph Gordon Levitt and the supporting players managed to be convincing as rugged noir-ish burnouts, vixens and other low lives in the context of the high-school cliques. The grim overall tone meshed with teenage angst had a leavening effect on the arch high concept. Adrien Brody, and a particularly low-key, laid-back Mark Ruffalo (more abacus here than human being) do not fare as well in The Brother Bloom’s attempted fusion of breezy and gloomy. Like the pristine costumes they wear, the leads are all surface gloss and no lived-in texture; too shallow for when the film springs from a mediation on the narratives we craft to spice up our lives, to the consequences of living the lie ad infinitum. When it goes for fable the film flies, when it goes for drama, it sinks.
The supporting players fare better (fans of Chris Smith’s Severance be on the lookout for a sweaty Andy Nyman in a tiny role) and Rachel Weisz’s Penelope is endearing yet somewhat underwritten in her actions and intentions. In most cases the film says the words, but fails to convince with the actions of its ‘tortured heroes.’ It aims for a weighty conclusion on a framework made out of balsa-wood. (Mint flavoured) Attempts to dissect story telling devices by using metaphor and symbols as sight gags yield middling success. The film clearly aims for an epiphany or two involving identity, storytelling and living life in the fullest (and most honest) manner. It reiterates that is easier, sometimes, to play the part than be the part. Yes, Bottle Rocket with a budget. I was never bored or angry or even disappointed during The Brothers Bloom, but I left the picture wanting both less and more. I’ll be hold out for Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York for the right balance.