You con yourself every single day. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.
This is the basic message of The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to the audacious Brick. While Bloom doesn’t quite reach the same levels of excitement that Brick did (or the same levels of obtuse language, surely good news for the segment of the population that couldn’t luxuriate in the thickets of Johnson’s faux-noir lingo), it’s a gorgeous and delightful movie that will sweep away all but the most cynical and soulless viewers.
Bloom is, on the surface, a con man movie. But the cons here aren’t what you might expect from that genre. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) travel the world working complex, complicated long grifts that resemble nothing so much as really expensive versions of those murder mystery weekends. They’re telling stories. Very early on, in the Bloom Brothers’ origin story flashback, we’re introduced to their basic con theory, which is what makes them good guys we can really root for: the perfect con is one where everybody gets what they want. Sure, the Brothers Bloom will walk away with a whole bunch of your money, but you’re going to have had an adventure, been to exciting places, learned new things about yourself. They’re storytellers and you’re the audience, happily forking over your money to be tricked, fooled, dazzled and immersed in illlusion
While Bloom isn’t as stylized in language as Brick, it is stylized in tone and setting. I hesitate to use the word ‘quirky’ because it automatically creates a negative image in so many people’s minds, but Bloom is sort of quirky. It’s unique, with a light spirit and an often playful tone. Johnson creates an entire world in a few bright brush strokes, and then he populates it with characters that charm immediately. There’s a dark edge to Brick that’s almost completely missing here; villains and (possible) real danger appear in the third act, but I didn’t miss them before that. Spending time with the Brothers Bloom as they live the yarn they spin was enough to keep me engrossed.
As the film opens Bloom is, once again, trying to quit on his brother Stephen. At 35 Bloom doesn’t know who is, having spent his whole life playing roles in his brother’s stories. A deal is made: one last mark will be fleeced. Going against the rules the Brothers have for themselves, Stephen picks Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a rich, beautiful, lonely eccentric who is so perfect for Bloom that he suspects that she is one of his brother’s characters. And that’s an assumption that isn’t so far off the mark; while Bloom is desperate to find an unwritten life and discover who he truly is, Stephen wants nothing more than to tell a story so good that it comes completely true.
If I have one major complaint about The Brothers Bloom it is summed up in one statement: not enough Mark Ruffalo. But then again, that’s a complaint I have about almost every single Mark Ruffalo movie. Third billed, Ruffalo isn’t technically as much of a lead as Brody and Weisz, who engage in a very sweet and odd love story, but for me Ruffalo is the life of the film. Brody’s slightly downbeat longing for something else in life is the intended heart of the movie, but the film is never quite as alive as when Ruffalo is on screen. And when Ruffalo is onscreen with Rinko Kikuchi, playing the Brothers’ silent pyromaniac associate, the film is almost exploding with life.
Which should not be taken as a slight to Brody and Weisz. I have not tended to warm to Brody in his previous films; while I appreciated the way that he almost physically embodies quirkiness (that word again) while refusing to be pigeonholed as a character actor, there was something that never quite clicked for me. He comes closer to clicking for me here than in any previous role, and I think it’s in large part because of his chemistry with his co-stars. Weisz, meanwhile, gets to show a funny side of herself that is too rarely seen in films. There’s already Oscar buzz around her role and I don’t think it’s undeserved. She brings so many wonderful layers to a character that, in the hands of a lesser actress, would have been simply silly. But Weisz lets us see the sadness and loneliness just underneath the surface at all times, and it’s touching. On top of that, she’s one of those actresses who, even when she’s not ‘made up’ is incredibly beautiful to look at.
Speaking of beautiful: the film itself is often gorgeous. It’s hard to believe that this sunny globe-trotting adventure was shot in Eastern Europe. Johnson’s DP from Brick, Steve Yedlin, is back, but like the writer/director he brings a totally different game to this film. Also returning is composer Nathan Johnson (yes, related), whose Jon Brion-inflected score keeps the bouncy, just edging on frothy, tone of the film springing high. And while we’re talking music, I have to give props to Rian Johnson for compiling a terrific series of needle-drops, including some Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan. That choice alone bespeaks a good record collection.
There are a number of cons going through The Brothers Bloom (and a second viewing nicely helps see the threads of all these laid out right from the start), but the biggest ones are the cons the characters play on themselves. And the film is saying that we all play these cons – we’re all the lead characters in our own stories, and the difference between the stories that Stephen and Bloom spin for Penelope aren’t that different from the ones we spin to get us through our days. Storytelling isn’t just a way to entertain or to teach, the film argues, it’s integral to the way we experience our lives. After my second viewing of Bloom I couldn’t help but feel that this film is one magical element away from being a Sandman story, as the themes Gaiman explored in that comic aren’t that far off from what Johnson explores here.
I have to admit to being very worried about seeing The Brothers Bloom. Brick was such an assured debut, was so very damn good, that it didn’t seem unreasonable that it was a fluke. I mean, that film – a high school noir shot on a shoestring and edited in a bedroom – just shouldn’t have been that good, and I could have believed that Johnson simply got lucky. But The Brothers Bloom proves that it was no fluke, that Johnson is a real voice and talent, and that we have someone whose every new project will get us legitimately excited.
Comparing movies is a fool’s game – no two are the same, unless Gus Van Sant is remaking it shot for shot. But the urge to compare Johnson’s second film to his first will likely be overwhelming for some, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that they’re two very, very different animals. I will say that Brick was a more electrifying film in the way that only a totally out of left field phenomenon can be. I walked out of Brick with my neurons firing at a mile a minute, intoxicated on language. I walked out of The Brothers Bloom almost sad. Johnson has created a world so warm and off-kilter, yet relatable and believable, that I never wanted to leave it. And he peopled it with characters who I wanted to keep on knowing. With Brick Rian Johnson got me excited with his storyteller’s tools; with The Brothers Bloom he used them to transport me.
I loved being the mark in this con.
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