Writer-director Rian Johnson’s 2005 debut, Brick, dressed high-school melodrama in the garb of film noir, with conspicuously clever results. His new film, The Brothers Bloom, concerns itself with the mechanics of the heist movie, and the deep reserves of fraternal feeling contained therein. It too is clever and conspicuous — and impressively soulful, but only in spite of itself.
The brothers are Stephen, the older (Mark Ruffalo), a cynic; and Bloom, the younger (Adrien Brody), a romantic. The con game is their trade, and has been their way of coping with the world at least since they discovered that Bloom, “being as he wasn’t, could be as he wished to be,” and Stephen saw an opportunity. That happened early, as a rhymed verse narration in the dynamic opening sequence explains, probably during the period when the brothers found themselves rejected by 38 pairs of foster parents and figuring out ways to swindle their elementary-school classmates. At once stunted and sophisticated, they became “gentlemen thieves,” whose arbitrarily Joycean names now stand for a world-renowned personal brand of artistically elaborate, literarily allusive grifting.
“He writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels,” Bloom now says of his brother’s schemes, with palpable resignation. The evidence suggests that Stephen actually writes his cons the way living Americans write movies, but more to the point of Bloom’s resignation is the way the cons are cast: invariably with Bloom as their doleful protagonist. Nowadays, “being as he isn’t” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. What the younger brother wants instead, at last, is “an unwritten life,” although, to his annoyance, he can’t put it into those words until Stephen does it for him. And all Stephen really wants is to do things for him. Oh, and also to achieve the perfect con, “to tell a story so well it becomes real.”
The Fagin to these criminal fabulists–regrettably absent from that opening sequence–is an old man called Diamond Dog (Maximillian Schell), now an enemy. And they also have made the acquaintance, to put it as Johnson would, of an imposing Belgian smuggler of antiquities called the Curator (Robbie Coltrane), now neither enemy nor friend. These characters will matter to the plot, or maybe, ultimately, not.
The brothers’ latest muse and mark, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), is a widowed, epileptic, mansion-dwelling New Jersey heiress with enough money and leisure time to “collect hobbies” and combine them preposterously (juggling the chainsaws, for instance, while riding the unicycle). She’s the sort of woman who, if only given the chance, will light up and say, “C’mon, let’s be smugglers!” before paying everybody’s way to Prague. The sort of woman who would cease to exist without a movie like this to be in, even as the options it affords her are so few: to be fallen for, to take or be taken as a fool.
At least Penelope is more thoroughly developed than Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the mutely mugging Asian explosives-expert sidekick who serves as Stephen’s “personal masseuse” and Johnson’s tawdry stereotype. It’s nothing against underwritten explosives-expert sidekicks — Danny McBride in Tropic Thunder set a fine example — but rather the racial and gender-determined disadvantage that seems so uncomfortable here. Best to concentrate on the brothers, whom Brody and Ruffalo inhabit with verve and humor and grace. It’s hard to tell if they’re doing the movie a favor, or it’s doing one for them.
It is easy, though, to accuse Johnson of ripping off Wes Anderson. The two filmmakers do have some things in common, like mannered fabulism as a hedge against leisure-class ennui. (Or is it the other way around?) The Brothers Bloom does rhyme a little with Anderson’s last feature, The Darjeeling Limited, which similarly involved Adrien Brody wearing very nice suits; and with Anderson’s first, Bottle Rocket, which similarly involved two brothers who map out a criminal adventure for themselves by free-handing a diagram on notebook scraps. But if the wistful theatrics of Cat Stevens on the soundtrack were stolen from anyone, it’s Hal Ashby, who already had that going on in Harold and Maude. And, anyway, The Brothers Bloom is potentially wearying enough without tracking its sources; does it really matter if the love interest as quirky New Jersey epileptic originally and rightfully belongs to Zach Braff’s Garden State?
Better question: Will Johnson’s tendency to brood and fidget and allude one day finally become subdued? That’s a day worth waiting for.