It’s quirky. It’s offbeat. It’s self-referential. It will remind you of Wes Anderson. It may, in one respect at least, remind you of Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s a classic con-game story that seems to be offering you a new deal while relying on the old false shuffle to get you there. And it’s much more. It’s a character comedy. It’s a romance. It’s Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, and it’s utterly magical. If ever a film had “Asheville movie” written on it, this is it. Personally, I haven’t had this much pure fun at a movie all year. It’s one of those movies that I wanted to see again the moment it was over—and had this been anything other than a press screening where that was not possible, I would have.
The Brothers Bloom had been on the list of movies I was actually anxious to see when I first encountered the trailer last fall. After catching up with Johnson’s first film, Brick (also opening locally this week), I was even more set on the idea. Then I started hearing some naysaying, followed by mixed reviews (which took a more positive turn when the film went wider). Those reviews, however, only piqued my interest, because the negative ones were the sort that indicate an unorthodox movie of more-than-passing interest. While that indicates that I was predisposed to like the film, it also indicates that the film had to live up to my expectations. Instead it surpassed them—even as I sat there waiting for it to go wrong.
The film’s opening—narrated by Ricky Jay (who narrated Magnolia)—is a breathless setup, establishing two brothers—Stephen (newcomer Max Records) and Bloom (Zachary Gordon)—as troublesome orphans who are constantly shunted from one foster family to another for a variety of extravagant offenses. Presented very much in a style that recalls Johnson’s Brick—in other words, as a kind of hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel—the opening recounts the brothers’ discovery of the con game, and Stephen’s peculiar approach to and knack for such undertakings. But this sets up more than their future career, it sets up their entire relationship—a relationship in which Bloom seems to exist only as characters his brother devises for him. At first, this allows him the ability to interact with others, since he can’t on his own, but it thwarts true interaction.
As Stephen and Bloom grow up and turn into Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, Bloom’s desire for what he calls “an unwritten life” grows stronger, predictably causing him to want out of their very successful racket. This actually results in nothing more than Bloom hightailing it to Montenegro and drinking himself silly, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s not that difficult for Stephen to talk him into the inevitable “one last con.” In this case, the con involves a fabulously wealthy—and lonely—eccentric, Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), who collects hobbies, carelessly crashes Lamborghinis (worry not, replacements are always on the way), suffers from epilepsy and takes photographs with pinhole cameras because she likes the distortion of the truth into something else. Could a more perfect mark exist?
Much of what happens from this is fairly easy to predict, but the way in which it’s all handled is not. The characters are surprisingly solid creations who we come to care about over the course of the film, largely because no one is ever quite who he or she seems. Even the enigmatic Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel), who is said to understand no more than three words of English and speaks only two words in the whole film, is imbued with suggestions of a depth that transcends what we—and the brothers—think we know. The beauty of much of The Brothers Bloom is that it’s considerably more than a comedy about con artists. It is that, but it’s also a richly rewarding character study.
Johnson’s direction is equal to his writing. His handling of scenes is endlessly creative. Some of the funniest moments in the film are little more than throwaway gags positioned in the background of the shots (watch the palm tree, for example, or the replacement Lamborghini being driven up the hill by deliverymen). His handling of the characters is equally strong. He has almost certainly built his con artists on such models as Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Barbara Stanwyck and her father (Charles Coburn) as cardsharps in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), but he’s taken them in new directions.
The film itself is something of a con game—as all films can be said to be. The audience is being conned as surely as Penelope—and as surely as Bloom—but it’s such a sweet con that you never mind. Stephen does indeed “write his cons with a dramatic arc like dead Russian novelists,” as his brother notes at one point, and so does Johnson, who also creates a separate fantasy world for his characters to inhabit. It’s all in the service of something larger and more resonant than the film might at first seem. If it’s true—as Stephen claims—that the best cons are those where everybody gets what they want, then Johnson delivers just that for both his characters and his audience. Don’t let this one get away. Rated PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and brief strong language.