Review: The Brothers Bloom, 2009, dir. Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson‘s follow-up to 2005’s paean to noir, Brick, wants you to put your trust in its narrative. And in point of fact, The Brothers Bloom goes to great lengths to ensure it gains your confidence. Maybe in some cases, Johnson’s sophomore film tries too hard but the effort is undeniably genuine and as enthusiastic and creative as the director’s first film; in short, it’s difficult not to fall in love with his stylish, tightly-scripted crime caper, itself a con used to dupe the audience with twists, turns, misdirections, and other forms of chicanery.

Orphaned brothers Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Steven (Mark Ruffalo) grow up to be master con artists after a rough, neglectful childhood that sees them bounce between innumerable foster homes. One might compare the Brothers Bloom (a name that only makes sense inasmuch as Brody’s Bloom appears to be the face of the operation while Ruffalo’s sly and conniving Steven functions as the brains) to a rock band; they’ve got a following, groupies practically, people who recognize them for who they are and what they do and desperately want to obtain a piece of that lifestyle for themselves. Bloom finds himself fending off one such fan in the film’s first act, as he realizes that he wants a life of his own instead of the one that his sibling has devised for him.

So in other words, The Brothers Bloom is about Bloom’s journey to win back mastery over his own soul, with Steven playing the devil on his shoulder and nobody taking the role of the angel. Of course, the film isn’t quite as heavy as that implies– making the ultimate power-play for sovereignty over his life, Bloom quits the con artist business for good, although anyone who has ever seen a movie ever knows immediately that this is only temporary. Inevitably, Steven and his girlfriend/partner in crime Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) draw Bloom back into the game for one last big con. The mark: Rachel Weisz’s eccentric, lonely, epileptic millionairess, Penelope. The brothers put their plan into effect and the adventure picks up as the quartet travels the world in the name of the con, and Bloom’s discontent slowly bubbles to the surface.

The weight of the brotherly conflict is felt throughout the film, but it does diminish somewhat as the con artist team kicks off their bid to alleviate Penelope of the burden of her fortune, and as The Brothers Bloom meanders from location to location it’s hard not to admire Johnson’s verve as well as his skill behind the camera. His picture cost only 20 million dollars (and yes, I’m perfectly aware of how ridiculous that sounds), but based on appearance it could easily have cost three times that amount. From Montenegro to Greece to Prague to Mexico, the film globe trots without missing and beat and it does so entirely on the cheap without ever looking like it. Johnson squeezes ever ounce of visual impact that he possibly can out of each set and each locale, capturing dazzling images in beautiful detail. On that kind of budget, the stunning visual statement The Brothers Bloom manages to make is no small feat. (And it’s hard not to admire a film where the stately Weisz juggles chainsaws on a unicycle.)

Equally impressive is the art of the con as expressed in the narrative; through Johnson’s craftsmanship, we one minute believe that we’re in on the whole thing, complicit in Penelope’s duping, and then the next all of that goes out the window. Then, we think we’re back in on it again, though the point at which the game ends and the movie ceases trying to fool us becomes clear. This feels somewhat natural in a crime caper, where duplicity is the name of the game. So to put things simply, Johnson isn’t really doing anything new per se, but what he is doing is telling a story with incredible verve, and make all of his excitement for his own story palatable for his audience. Little is more exhilarating than being invited to participate in a filmmaking experience cobbled together by an artist with genuine and infectious enthusiasm for their picture, and The Brothers Bloom adds up to precisely such a film. Even if he’s not breaking new ground, Johnson treads on that which has been previously established with a respect and a fondness that only someone truly passionate about the medium possesses.

That tangible love for the material (and the genre, which appears to be Mamet con artist dramas; if Ricky Jay’s narration isn’t an obvious nod to Mamet’s work, nothing is) isn’t specific only to the director; it’s present in each and every performance, too. While there’s no doubt that Johnson is having fun here, the entire cast might just have him beat, particularly Weisz, who is completely darling as the isolated Penelope. Weisz comes to the film with reserves of ineffable pluck and spunk, but she’s also able to make this character feel completely grounded and vulnerable despite her rather fantastic qualities. She’s a classic (if perhaps somewhat rote) example of someone who has everything and in that state of being, has nothing, until she meets Bloom and falls in love. One has to wonder, when the two first meet and their chemistry is immediately felt, how Steven, the mastermind con man, could have failed to suspect that his brother might end up falling in love with their latest mark. (Or if perhaps he meant for it to happen.)

Brody, of course, deserves high praise for his turn here as Bloom, the sad-eyed and put upon younger sibling struggling to separate himself from Steven’s designs. This is a playful film, in fact almost unrelentingly so, and while Bloom could easily weigh down the two-faced revelry of the proceedings, Brody affects a level of regretful charm that instead anchors the film, grounding the almost overwhelming quirkiness of the plot and the characters. He’s sort of the straight-man here, and certainly the moral center of the film, and somehow Brody manages to balance making Bloom sympathetic and also engaging and stand-out at the same time.

If The Brothers Bloom possesses a flaw, it’s a sense of self-satisfaction that almost verges on hubris. Even at its best, this is a picture wholly enraptured in the eccentricities of its plot and narrative, and that inherent smugness is sure to be a big turn off to a number of viewers. While all of that confidence could very well be overbearing for some, at the very least it’s earned, though for those opposed to egotism of any kind that’s small consolation. For the rest of us, The Brothers Bloom is a strong follow-up effort to an even stronger debut.

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Brothers Bloom, 2009, dir. Rian Johnson

  1. You know what me and my sister were obsessing over this movie? The Maximillian Schell character, Diamond Dog. The undertones between him and Bloom confounded us.

  2. Once I saw “Brick,” I was sold on Rian Johnson as a director (who else would make a ’30s detective movie and set it in a modern-day high school?). So I had to see “The Brothers Bloom,” and it soared past my expectations. It was easily the most original film I saw last year aside from “Inglourious Basterds.” I love the banter between Mark Ruffalo (a favorite actor of mine) and Adrien Brody, who’s perfect for this sad-sack part. He also has some appealing chemistry with Rachel Weisz, an actress who’s rapidly convincing me she can do no wrong. In truth I probably need to watch this film at least three more times before I can straighten out the plot, particularly the end, which appears to double (or triple?) back on itself.

    You make a very astute point that the film seems to be a little too amused with its own cleverness; however, given how inventive and fun “The Brothers Bloom” is, I’m willing to overlook that.

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