Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi and Adrien Brody in The Brothers Bloom

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)

16 Responses to “Review: The Brothers Bloom (2009) **”

  1. “The Brothers Bloom may be as nice looking as a suit at the dry cleaners, but it’s also just as empty.”

    “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.”

    One of those eh? Magnificent and civilized putdown. I’ll take a pass.

  2. The difference is that the marks are all sitting in the audience instead of on the screen.

    Ouch. Well, this isn’t one that was on my radar like, say, Inglorious Basterds, so it’s not like I had high expectations and anticipation that got dashed to pieces.

  3. I’m sorry to hear that the laundry stole the $10 you left in your pants pocket. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there. At least the suit smells good. :-P

    Based solely on the trailer, I’m not expecting realism or depth out of this. It looks like a fun caper, and still does, so I’m in.

  4. Aw, Craig…

    Just skimmed this quickly because I don’t want to be influenced by your masterful review when the time comes.

    You know, I could almost predict your reaction to TBB. You weren’t at all enthusiastic about the first few minutes when you put that up.

    I was thoroughly dazzled.

    If that’s the general tone of the entire business and you’re not digging that, then I guess the rest of it would be just like yesterday’s leftovers.

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.

    These things are impossible to predict ahead of time. But I think that this flick is LIKELY much more to my taste than yours.

    Of course I could end up hating it even more than you. In that case, we could have a good laugh about it then.

    But if I give it a rave and it ends up on CP’S TOP 10 OF 2009, hopefully we’ll still be friends…

  5. WJ and Miranda, I sincerely hope you both enjoy it. It’s certainly gotten plenty of good reviews, so maybe I was just feeling crabby yesterday.

    Like I said, it worked for about an hour before I got bored with it. If the other elements work really well you might love it.

    Rachel Weisz was terrific and the rest of the cast was enjoyable.

  6. I finally showed up here to completely disagree with you.

    You’re wrong.

    I love you anyway.

    Damn, how am I going to catch up with LiC now?

    Out of the recent batch of reviews here at LiC, I have seen…

    Tokyo Sonata

    Star Trek

    Terminator: Salvation

    Away We Go

    Up

    And this one. This is the only film on which I significantly disagree with you based on star-rating. What’s funny is I can completely see where you’re coming from on this film, but I’m crazy so I see things backwards. :-)

    I also saw Goodbye Solo; I am sure you reviewed it.

    Anyway, I’m happy to see LiC is being taken to greater heights by you, Craig. Sorry I missed out on seeing so much of it recently. A zillion pardons.

  7. Welcome back Alexander. I hope you feel better for the time in rehab.

  8. ALEXANDER!

    Yay!

    Nice to have you back ’round these parts, pardner.

    I’ve not seen Bloom to agree or disagree with either of you. I just like it when old friends show up again.

  9. Well Alexander, I say hello to you and great seeing you back in print. I am equally thrilled you have seen those films too!

  10. I am touched. Thank you for the welcome back, you three!! :-)

    I do feel better after that stint in rehab, Sartre. :)

  11. I hope that being in high risk situations like film blogs doesn’t see you relapse by returning to levels of film watching that make functioning in the world impossible.

    I’m sure the form of the Giants is making for welcome distraction from the relentless urges.

  12. Hahaha, Sartre.

    You’re right about the Giants. It’s all about pitching!

  13. Glad to have you back Alexander, even if we saw completely different movies in Brothers Bloom!

  14. Thank you, Craig.

  15. I’m with Alexander. I loved the thing. HIghly entertaining. It seems like Johnson was going for screwball as much as con game film. It’s more like The Lady Eve than The Sting. I mean it has a zany heiress for heaven’s sake.

    Finally saw this at a dollar theater on discount night. Best 75 cents I spent in a long time. And while much of the film is built on affection, the love story is happily genuine. It’s like Gun Crazy, to pull something out of my ass to compare it to. The romance is affected, I’ll agree, but I didn’t find it hollow at all.

  16. I’m willing to back off my strong reaction to this one to a point, though I’ll have to see it again with fresh eyes.

    You know how sometimes a movie just hits every note wrong? That’s what this one felt like and once I turned against it early on, it was hard not to keep criticizing it the whole way through.

    It sucks because for about a year, up until I saw the opening minutes online, I was rooting for this one and looking forward to it.

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