Writer-director Rian Johnson’s 2005 debut, Brick, dressed high-school melodrama in the garb of film noir, with conspicuously clever results. His new film, The Brothers Bloom, concerns itself with the mechanics of the heist movie, and the deep reserves of fraternal feeling contained therein. It too is clever and conspicuous—and impressively soulful, but only in spite of itself.
Blooms’ day: (From left) Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody and Rinko Kikuchi get their con on in The Brothers Bloom.
The brothers are Stephen, the older (Mark Ruffalo), a cynic; and Bloom, the younger (Adrien Brody), a romantic. The con game is their trade, and has been their way of coping with the world at least since Bloom discovered that he, “being as he wasn’t, could be as he wished to be,” and Stephen saw an opportunity. That happened early, as a rhymed verse narration in the dynamic opening sequence explains, probably during the period when the brothers found themselves rejected by 38 pairs of foster parents and figured out ways to swindle their elementary school classmates. At once stunted and sophisticated, they became “gentlemen thieves,” whose arbitrarily Joycean names now stand for a world-renowned personal brand of artistically elaborate, literarily allusive grifting.
The Fagin to these criminal fabulists is an old man called Diamond Dog (Maximillian Schell), now an enemy. And they also have made the acquaintance, to put it as Johnson would, of an imposing Belgian smuggler of antiquities called the Curator (Robbie Coltrane), neither enemy nor friend. These characters will matter to the plot, or maybe, ultimately, not.
The brothers’ latest muse and mark, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), is a widowed, epileptic, mansion-dwelling New Jersey heiress with enough money and leisure time to “collect hobbies” and combine them preposterously (juggling the chainsaws, for instance, while riding the unicycle). She’s the sort of woman who, if only given the chance, will light up and say, “C’mon, let’s be smugglers!” before paying everybody’s way to Prague. The sort of woman who would cease to exist without a movie like this to be in, even as the options it affords her are so few: to be fallen for, to take or be taken as a fool.
At least Penelope is more thoroughly developed than Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the mutely mugging Asian explosives expert and sidekick who serves as Stephen’s “personal masseuse” and Johnson’s tawdry stereotype. It’s nothing against underwritten explosives experts—Danny McBride in Tropic Thunder set a fine example—but rather the racial and gender-determined disadvantage that seems so uncomfortable here. Best to concentrate on the brothers, whom Brody and Ruffalo inhabit with verve and humor and grace. It’s hard to tell if they’re doing the movie a favor, or it’s doing one for them.
It is easy, at least, to accuse Johnson of ripping off Wes Anderson. But The Brothers Bloom is potentially wearying enough even without tracking its sources. Instead, let’s stay hopeful for its maker’s future. To put it as Johnson would: Will his tendency to brood and fidget and allude one day finally become subdued? That’s a day worth waiting for.