Thirtysomething writer-director Rian Johnson came on the scene in 2005 with the one-of-a-kind Brick, a noir drama with vintage Hammett- or Chandler-type dialogue set in a modern L.A. high school. His new movie, The Brothers Bloom, shows us how an international caper film might look directed by hipster darling Wes Anderson.
Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play Stephen and Bloom, respectively, the titular brothers who make their living trotting the globe and conning billionaires out of millions. But they aren’t just in it for the money ... oh, no. In a rather too precious prologue narrated by magician Ricky Jay — in rhyming couplets, yet — we learn the duo honed their skills as young orphans, when Stephen masterminded their first con in an effort to cheer up his wan little brother.
As an adult, Ruffalo’s Stephen continues to devise and stage-manage the elaborate schemes — much like, say, a filmmaker — while Brody’s still-depressed Bloom merely acts in them. Moreover, we’re told, each con is designed to give each participant exactly “what they wanted.” While the brothers get the loot, the bored, rich patsies get some excitement in their lives — much like an audience.
In short, this is conning on a pretty postmodern level. (At one point, Bloom compares Stephen’s plots to Russian novels, “with dramatic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit.”) If you seek a reality-based caper film, or even an urbane romp reminiscent of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The Thomas Crown Affair, you’re out of luck. Johnson doesn’t seem so much interested in the intricate setups or the tools of the brothers’ trade as in their relationship with their latest mark, an epileptic shut-in heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). And in winking at the audience.
For instance, why do the protagonists’ names evoke Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey? We never find out, but maybe it’s part of the joke. (In one very funny scene, the well-read Penelope starts to deconstruct Stephen’s “embedded symbolism” when she notes two apparently coincidental Melville references.) Like the Coen brothers, or even Quentin Tarantino, Johnson draws absurdist humor from the clashes of old genre expectations and breezy contemporary attitudes. And he fully exploits the iconic appeal of a silent, imperious Japanese chick (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel) wielding some very big explosives.
Nattily costumed, cleverly scored, and shot in the stunning vernal landscapes of Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Romania — with one especially luscious Prague sequence — The Brothers Bloom never fails to entertain the eyes and ears. But it also never fulfills the promise of its premise.
Though Johnson clearly has his own “dramatic arc” in mind, the brothers remain stodgily static figures. Ruffalo almost never wavers from his hale-fellow-well-met charm. Brody, whose character really needs to develop as he finds himself amorously drawn to Weisz, remains the same painfully sensitive, suffering fellow from beginning to end; he looks like a gust of wind could blow him over. (Joseph Gordon Levitt, who starred in Brick, might have been a better casting choice; he can swing the wimpy-to-resolute transition.) And the brothers’ history with their former mentor and current nemesis, the evocatively named Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell) remains unexplored.
By contrast, Penelope is consistently intriguing. Throwing her thespian’s dignity to the winds, Weisz plays her like an overgrown version of a precocious preteen on a sugar binge, but not without moments of maturity. After 33 years in the familial mansion, the heiress is practically begging to be conned by two handsome men, but she may also be smart enough — and experienced enough in the tale-spinning trade — to unravel the deception.
Unlike Anderson, who deals in inchoate emotions, Johnson is clearly trying to get across a meta-message about how we all indulge hucksters and con men — artists, in short — for the sake of a bit of entertainment. A shaggy-dog story with aspirations to more, The Brothers Bloom opens a fine bag of tricks to divert us for an hour or two. It’s no windfall, but it’s not a con.