Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

It's perfectly possible that The Brothers Bloom, despite its erroneous title -- one of the brothers is named Bloom, and neither seems to have it as a surname -- is a work of top-to-bottom genius. Meticulously crafted and highly stylized, the film is a labyrinth worthy of Escher, twisting and turning until it reaches the end and refolding upon itself to start anew. If the point of a con-man movie is to keep the audience guessing, then I suppose it succeeds wildly.

With only one prior film under his belt, director Rian Johnson certainly hasn't wasted time in establishing a distinctive visual flair: his Brick -- a film I once watched but was too distracted to follow properly -- has a reputation for visual acuity, and those I know who have watched it studiously assure me that its use of pitch-black noir in a high school setting is interesting and engaging. I shall return to it someday (soon, I hope), but for now let us focus on his latest feature, the con caper The Brothers Bloom.

Bloom's titular brothers have been running scams since childhood. Stephen (played in adulthood by Mark Ruffalo), planned the schemes, invented the characters and wrote the scripts, while little brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) did what was asked of him. Before they even hit puberty, they can run advanced cons: Stephen tells their schoolmates of a fairy in a cave and collects $30 from the other kids to reveal the location. When the parents come to collect their children's money, however, the narrator informs us that the real payoff came from the local cleaners who washed all those kids' muddied clothes.

25 years later, Bloom is 35 and at last fed-up with playing second fiddle to his brother's whims. He agrees to help Stephen for, yes, one last job, though he does not do so immediately, presumably just so the crew could visit Montenegro. Stephen's mark is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a gorgeous heiress isolated from the world due to misdiagnosed allergies in her youth and the burden of caring for dying loved ones in early adulthood.

From here the plot slowly begins to corkscrew. After they ingratiate themselves to Penelope -- albeit not entirely according to plan -- Bloom, Stephen and Stephen's girlfriend/explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, who may or may not have a "no speaking" clause in her contracts for Western films) "reveal" themselves to be art smugglers, aware that the reclusive Penelope will be intrigued enough to follow them around.

There's always a danger when you can see actors having fun with their roles; occasionally the sense of fun can add to a film's sense of whimsy, but if we're meant to take the story seriously it can break the audience's connection to the narrative. Despite the lightweight feel of The Brothers Bloom, it's trying to work as a complex caper, yet the glee evident on the actors' faces is a delight. Ruffalo is terrific as the rakish confidence man, almost always unflappable even when plans go so wrong as a miniature diversion inadvertently blows out the wall of a basilica (well, he at least places his face in his palm on that one). Brody is an underrated straight man, and he's the closest thing the film has to a believable character. By far the most interesting, however, is Weisz: Penelope comes alive with the gang, and she proves a capable companion. In the film's best scene, she infiltrates that basilica that accidentally blew up, and when the chief of police captures her on the way out with a stolen book she manages to convince him to let her go (she even keeps the prize). When she discovers the truth of her new friends' intentions, the look of confusion morphing into pain, balanced with a slight willingness to overlook this betrayal to keep her buddies, is heartbreaking.

These actors are so interesting, in fact, that they manage to keep up interest long after the plot loses all grasp on self-control. Johnson crams every twist he possibly can into two hours, yet he has a shoddy feel for pacing. The Brothers Bloom moves it fits and spurts, lingering in some areas so Johnson can waste our time with beautiful yet arbitrary and ancillary shots of the surrounding area -- admittedly, one must admire how he visited all these gorgeous locations and kept the budget at $20 million. Then, we he hits upon a section of the story that deserves closer attention, Johnson leaps ahead, preferring to move to the next batch of exposition rather than focus on any emotional impact of all the double crosses. By the time "one last job" becomes a precursor to the real farewell gig which leads to yet another con, whatever technical expertise exists in the script is wholly irrelevant to the sense of ennui even the punchiest script can create when it gives you no sure footing with anything. I'm not asking for a cut-and-dry narrative without surprises, but this gang embarked on more farewell gigs than KISS.

Roger Ebert compared the too-smug feel of the film to Wes Anderson's bloated and listless The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a comparison I find rather fitting: both demonstrate visually striking artists whose hip characters and exacting camerawork and set design are let loose without restraint, a soulless display of technique that deceptively flirts with greatness on a surface level but reveals its emptiness upon even a cursory inspection. I confess that I found Brody, Kikuchi, Ruffalo and Weisz so entertaining that I didn't terribly mind that my time had been wasted -- I should also mention the great Robbie Coltrane, who makes the wholly unnecessary character of "The Belgian" a welcome edition with his natural and charmingly overbearing screen presence -- but The Brothers Bloom is clearly the work of an artist who still has some growing to do. If Johnson can put his considerable talents toward a story with some degree of human connection, he might just morph into a formidable force.

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