A film review by Craig J. Koban November 2, 2009


2009, PG-13, 113 mins.

Bloom: Adrien Brody / Stephen: Mark Ruffalo / Penelope: Rachel Weisz / Bang Bang: Rinko Kikuchi / Diamond Dog: Maximilian Schell / Melville: Robbie Coltrane / Narrator: Ricky Jay

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Part DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, part THE STING, and with a sprinkle of James Joyce’s ULYSSES and Homer’s THE ODYSSEY, Rian Johnson’s THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a highly distinctive con film that certainly typifies the wit, creativity, and flair of its maker.  As much as the film seems borrowed from its cinematic and literary predecessors, it ultimately feels novel and unique.

The Maryland-born, 36-year-old director is perhaps best known for his critically lauded freshman effort, BRICK, which, despite its low budget (around $500,000) and lack of high tech resources, was as inspired and inventive as any film from 2006.  It was a teen-centric high school film, but what Johnson did was insidiously clever: he transplanted the typical norms of these types of adolescent-fuelled genre films into a crime- noir inspired drama, complete with characters that share the same tough talking and lyrical inflections as the characters of Dashiell Hammett.  I thought that BRICK was one of the best debut films in a young time, highlighting a filmmaker that had an unlimited imagination and ingenuity.     

THE BROTHERS BLOOM certainly is not as innovative and daring as BRICK (like many new and highly promising filmmaking talents, Johnson may, no doubt, become the victim of the sophomore jinx).  As far as con man/crime capers go, the film resides itself fairly comfortably within the conventions of the genre: We have a couple of wily and inordinately clever and persuasive con artists; lush locales; a love interest that becomes the target of their next big score (that inevitably makes securing the score that much more difficult when one becomes smitten with her); and, of course, a whole lot of tension, intrigue, and plot twist after plot twist that is designed to keep viewers on the tips of their toes throughout.  Without much reservation on my part, it's easy to see THE BROTHERS BLOOM – at face value – as a fairly paint-by-numbers caper film.   

Where it separates itself from its more rudimentary elements is with its tone and look.  THE BROTHERS BLOOM is neither too dark and unsettling as a crime thriller nor too light hearted and jovial as an affable and easygoing buddy flick.  What Johnson does so well is to blend a screwball comedic sensibility alongside the accoutrements of a suspense drama and, much as he demonstrated with BRICK, he shows how adept he is at taking highly divergent material and morphing it into a satisfyingly cohesive whole.  Even better, THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a film that shows the fascination and adoration that its maker has with his influences.  Much like a Quentin Tarantino, Johnson’s work reflects his ardent passion for the cinema as he brings an incredible knowledge of classic crime/caper films of the past and, instead of just lazily paying homage to them, he toys and tinkers with them to fit his storytelling needs. 

Even finer is how Johnson slyly gives the film a sense of timelessness: it neither feels of today or yesterday, but rather a hybrid of both.  He creates a universe that does not feel tangibly like any we live in as it has pieces of past thrown in together to create a world that looks like the present, but feels like the past.  Johnson’s con men wear bowler hats and derbies, have a fresh vernacular that seems both borrowed and new, and even their names and motives are reflected in the works of Joyce and Dostoevsky.  The brothers in the film, named Stephen and Bloom, are obviously inspired by two of Joyce’s personas, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in ULYSSES.  Furthermore, a female character in the film, fastidiously loyal to Bloom, is also echoed in Joyce’s character of Molly, who in turn was influenced by Odysseus’ loyal wife, Penelope, in Homer’s ODYSSEY.  Even the characters in THE BROTHERS BLOOM, at one point, hatch a devious con that one aptly describes as having eerie similarities to those in Russian novels.  The point here is simple, but pervasive: Johnson gives the film layers of sophistication residing beneath its veneer of a routine con/comedy/thriller.  He asks viewers to sit up and acknowledge its influences as opposed to just passively watching the film. 

In the film’s opening we're introduced to Stephen (as an adult played by Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) as kids that have been rejected by 38 sets of foster parents.  Stephen is the conveying cynic of the pair, whereas Bloom is more of a hopeless romantic that seems destined to forever live with a lonely heart.  Of course, the two become con men as they mature into adulthood, partly to facilitate Stephen’s own misanthropic nature and perhaps more for Stephen to impart a level of meaning into Bloom’s somewhat empty existence.  As we flash-forward to the pair in the present they are among the most respected con men in the business, but leading a duplicitous lifestyle for decades has had dire effects on Bloom.  Most people live one sort of “life,” but Bloom has allowed himself to partake in a multitude of them.  All he wants, with every ounce of his being, is to shed his largely made-up existence for good.  He desires an unwritten life, which is not as easy as it sounds, mostly because all that Bloom has know for 30-plus years is how to lie and cheat people. 

Of course, Bloom prophetically declares that “he’s out” of his thieving ways for good, but his brother will have nothing of it.  He does concede to Bloom that he’s okay with him retiring, but he wants him to retire with one obligatory last con (because if you going to retire, do it in style).  Assisted by their loyal sidekick - an expert in anything explosive, an “artist with nitro-glycerin” - Bang Bang (BABEL’s Oscar nominated Rinko Kikuchi, who says next to nothing in the film, but conveys a considerable amount of presence with her largely mute role), the siblings decide to hone in on a lonely, but filthy-stinking-rich heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz, rarely as lovably ditzy and high spirited as she is here).  Penelope is no ordinary billionaire: she's a self-described “epileptic photographer” that likes to collect hobbies of just about every kind (revealed in a very funny montage).  As odd and kooky as Penelope may be, Stephen nonetheless persuades Bloom to impregnate himself in her life to begin a highly complicated swan song scam, which the pair has prepped with a calculating precision.  Unfortunately for Bloom, he begins to fall for the lass in question, which makes it that much harder to screw her out of her money. 

Right from the very opening moments (which involves a voiceover narration from the great Ricky Jay), THE BROTHERS BLOOM all but announces to viewers that it is not a film to be taken literally in the real world.  Instead, this is a film of multiple disciplines that creates a marvelously stylized world for its characters.  Using sumptuous and painterly cinematography, a resoundingly acute eye for editing and camera moves, and Nathan Johnson’s invigorating, but discretely beautiful musical score, Rian Johnson allows his film to breathe with considerably more atmosphere than many recent con/heist flicks.  Combined with that is how well he intersperses a nice underplayed romantic essence in the story (the relationship between Bloom and Penelope is predictable, but the actors never allow it to ring falsely) while augmenting it with jaunty and sharply dialogue exchanges, an offbeat sense of adventure, and audience teasing suspense.  Like all great con flicks, THE BROTHERS BLOOM does a thoroughly decent job of making viewers think that they have the entire plot solved when they really don’t. 

The film is also greatly assisted by the uniformly assured acting.  Mark Ruffalo pulls out a performance that sort of echoes Orson Welles’ turn in THE THIRD MAN, playing a character that, underneath it all, should command our hatred and spite, but is so unreservedly charming and urbane that you can’t help but root for him (even when you don’t want to).  Rachel Weisz has a very tricky job of blending low-key sex appeal with an infectiously goofy and clumsy receptivity.  She positively radiates a childlike enthusiasm throughout the film.  The film’s real standout is Brody as the existentially melancholic Bloom, whose mostly somber character acts as a nice foil against the bubbly joviality of Weisz’s role.  The way Brody centers himself so squarely inside the tortured ironies of this man is quietly powerful: this is a figure that wants an escape from a lifestyle that, more or less, has sustained him for decades.  He knows that as long as Stephen spins fictitious roles for him to play in their schemes that his ability to release himself from them will become increasingly more challenging.  I like it when a film finds a dark undercurrent to a fairly light-hearted story without it feeling like it’s over-telegraphed or bombarding the audience. 

The compelling angle of the film is the whole dynamic between Bloom and Penelope.  She's a somewhat naive figure that craves for the type of novel adventures that Bloom has experienced.  He wants to eliminate any sense of scripted adventure to his existence, but she craves for it.  This adds an intriguing angle to their somewhat conventional relationship: Is she really just a social butterfly that is foolhardy and unaware that she is being conned by the man she grows to love or does she know she’s being fooled and simple has grown not to care because she's having so much fun?  The way Brody and Weisz invest in these contradictory personas (at least to each other) elevates the somewhat perfunctory nature of their romance.

THE BROTHERS BLOOM mildly suffers, however, from a few faults, like an ending that feels fairly incomprehensible (Johnson perhaps spins a few too many twists and turns for the film’s own good in its final twenty minutes, not to mention that the climax itself is puzzling when it comes to interpreting what actually happened).  There have also been many that have criticized the film for being too smugly self-conscious and mannered.  However, I think that it’s Johnson's filmmaking indulgence itself that pays rich dividends: his caper effortlessly blends the finer elements of offbeat romance, absurdist comedy, thrilling adventure, and just enough human pathos to make its characters have a real weight and emotional veracity.  More crucially, though, THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a blissful and sincere ode to its maker’s geeked-out appreciation of the film’s that influenced him.  Displaying a fruitful imagination, a wry and refined eye, and a whimsical panache, Johnson’s a filmmaker who does not sheepishly hide behind style, but rather freely lets it loose with a carefree spontaneity and dynamism.  In many ways, he's as deceptively skilled as the Brothers Bloom themselves.

  H O M E