I loved Rian Johnson’s first film, Brick* – the neo-hard boiled detective story set amongs high school social circles. It was the one with a bespectacled Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the anachronistic dialogue and the fantastic score by Johnson’s brother. I saw it three times in the theaters. Even bought it on DVD. But as I sat down for my screening of Rian Johnson’s followup, Th Brothers Bloom, a wave of doubt washed over me. No way he can do it again, I thought. Besides, the trailers made it seem like a hodgepodge of styles culled from Johnson’s contemporaries. It was Hudson Hawk through the off-kilter lens of Wes Anderson. Not necessarily a bad thing (I’m one of the few with fond memories of Hawk), but it wasn’t promising to be a revelation like Brick…
Well, turns out The Brothers Bloom wasn’t Brick. It was totally different, but in a nonetheless welcome way. Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort unabashedly demonstrates the filmmaker’s respect and passion for the magic of storytelling, which is ultimately what the movie is about. It’s joyous, masterful, cinematic sleight-of-hand, and worth viewing multiple times just to try and see the artifice behind the trick.
Essentially, it’s the story of two brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody), who’ve been successful con artists since childhood, always two steps ahead of everyone else. (The opening sequence, narrated by P.T. Anderson and David Mamet mainstay Ricky Jay, features the young brothers, one of whom is played by Max Records, who stars in the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are.) They’ve always worked the same way, with Stephen creating the cons – essentially telling the stories – and Bloom befriending the mark – essentially playing the lead part in the Brothers’ plays, which wind up costing their audience members a pretty penny, usually a savings account.
Flash forward to, presumably, present day – the film smartly lacks certain trappings that obviously assign it a time period, like cell phones – and the Brothers have added another to their ranks – the virtually dialogue-less Bang Bang, a demolitions expert played with impeccable comic timing by Babel’s mute Japanese girl, the oh-so-hip Rinko Kikuchi. But a malaise has set upon the the younger romantic Bloom, who’s ready to leave the conniving life. Stephen convinces him to go after one last mark, however, the eccentric heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz), who lives all by her lonesome, collects hobbies, and has a penchant for crashing Lamborghinis. I should mention here that if you’re a Rachel Weisz fan, just stop reading the review and go see the movie. It’s one of her best performances, and… well… Darren Aronofsky is one lucky dude.
Without giving too much away, Stephen’s scheme to rob Penelope blind involves Bloom getting close to her, and he of course gets way too close. But perhaps older brother Stephen expected this very thing to happen… What follows is a fast-paced, lighthearted second act in which the plot thickens, as the Brothers – who’ve now "recruited" Penelope into their cadre of gentlemen thieves under false pretenses – travel across Europe and attempt to steal away with a rare book that’s ultimately just bait. They also have a run-in with a shady man from their past, Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), whom the Brothers refer to as their "Fagan." (For all you young’uns out there, that’s a reference to the bad dude from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Rent the movie.) His couple of scenes on-screen belie his great importance in the film’s climax.
At face value, The Brothers Bloom is a flat-out fun flick about funny con artists. But all the little Easter Eggs to be found throughout make it much more. And the ending – a testament to the love and selflessness among brothers – was surprisingly emotionally satisfying.
Admittedly, that’s something not even the great Hudson Hawk provided.
The Brothers Bloom opens today in New York & Los Angeles, then starts a limited run in other cities on May 22nd.
* For all you Brick lovers watching Brothers Bloom, look for a dialogue-less cameo by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; and a slightly less microscopic part for Nora Zehetner, who played femme fatale Laura in Brick.
P.S. Check out this piece Rian Johnson wrote on Con Man films for the Huffington Post