The Brothers Bloom isn’t just a movie about a con. It is itself a confidence trick. The difference is that the marks are all sitting in the audience instead of on the screen.
Deploying his now trademarked abundance of style and excess of patter, writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick) tries for two hours to distract the audience from noticing that there really is nothing up his sleeve after all. It works for about half of the story’s running time, but through all the crosses and double-crosses, through all the twists and turns, the film’s shtick eventually wears itself out and in the end, the story reveals itself to have all the heart of a windup toy.
The Brothers Bloom may be as nice looking as a suit at the dry cleaners, but it’s also just as empty.
In an ill-advised attempt at channeling David Mamet, the film opens with Ricky Jay in voiceover introducing us to the two siblings and budding confidence men: Stephen aged 13 and Bloom aged 10. It’s here we’re given the two pieces central to Johnson’s puzzle: 1) the best cons are the ones where everyone gets what they want and 2) no matter how successful the brothers are, Bloom is left after every con feeling unfulfilled and lonely. Conveniently, the latter point is revisited in flashback near the end of the film just in case we’ve forgotten it.
Fast forward 20 years or so and Stephen and Bloom are now played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody. Along with silent partner Rinko Kikuchi (in a pointless running joke, she literally speaks four words during the entire film and two of them are “Campari”), they’ve just pulled off another successful scam and once again Bloom is left feeling empty. As he always does, he swears he’s calling it quits this time and going legit, but of course Stephen convinces him to go for one last con: swindling ditzy and lonely heiress Rachel Weisz out of a million dollars. Naturally, that’s not all there is to it. Maybe this time the real con will turn out to be on Bloom himself.
It should be said that the cast does its best to breathe some life into Johnson’s clockwork script, which probably reads better on the page than it plays on the screen. Brody is appropriately soulful as the sensitive Bloom and Ruffalo is effortlessly and off-handedly amusing as his cynical older brother. Entirely through gesture and expression, the mysterious Kikuchi manages to steal most of the scenes she’s in as Bang Bang, but the best part is Weisz as the daffy, girlish and socially stunted heiress, Penelope.
While it works, the film gets by on these performances and on Johnson’s breezy, face-paced attitude. In fact, the slick veneer would probably be enough and the movie could be a lot of fun if you don’t look too closely. However, every good magician knows that the best illusions are the ones where everyone in the audience is trying their best to figure out how the trick is done. In this case, Johnson almost dares the audience to see his sleight of hand. He invites nitpicking with a lot of quick talk and a handful of literary references designed to make the audience believe they’re not as smart as his movie is. Look closely though and he’s fooling you. It’s all just another scam.
This is a film where every nuance is purely for effect. There’s a running gag for example with Rachel Weisz’s character Penelope continually crashing because she’s unable to drive. There’s another running gag where she displays a knack for teaching herself hobbies – everything from playing the piano to juggling chainsaws. Unfortunately, the two gags conflict. Surely a woman with such a facility for picking things up could quickly learn to drive. Alas, Johnson is more concerned with his clever smirking jokes than he is with internal consistency or in developing a flesh and blood character who delivers honest human emotion.
Like Weisz’s entire character (she’s also epileptic for no other reason than it’s convenient for a couple of laughs), everything about the film is a construct. Johnson has set up an artificial, anachronistic world in which characters travel about in Lamborghinis as naturally as ’78 Cadillacs or steamships to the Continent, but this is just because Johnson thinks these things are cool. He never takes advantage of the freedom his world allows. It’s all just more affectation dressing up a story on rails leading to an inevitable, boring conclusion.
When the film finally does draws to its hollow close nearly a full hour after you’ve stopped caring, it grasps for some late-inning sunset lit pathos. Unfortunately, lacking the emotional legs on which to stand, it falls on its face. The actors exert themselves and the music swells, but once again it’s all just for show. At one point in the story, Bloom says to Stephen: “Everything between us…none of it’s real.” It turns out the audience could easily say the same thing of the The Brothers Bloom.
The Brothers Bloom. USA 2009. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Cinematogrpahy by Steve Yedlin. Music score composed by Nathan Johnson. Edited by Gabriel Wrye. Starring Adrien Bloom, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi, Robby Coltrane and Maxmillian Schell. Narrated by Ricky Jay. 1 hour 49 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and brief strong language. 2 stars (out of 5)