Monday, June 1, 2009

A Frank Review of "The Brothers Bloom" (2009)

The Short Version? Romantic con men vs. ennui
What Is It? Caper Comedy.
Who Is In It? Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo
Should I See It? Yes.

I would have let writer/director Rian Johnson's debut, Brick, sail right past me, had it not been for a few well-placed glowing reviews. I adored the neo-noir, and it's a film that still leaves me feeling tipsy whenever I bask in its cool blue glow. However, this left Johnson's sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, with the weight of expectation upon it. Luckily, within minutes it became clear that this film was so completely different from Brick in almost every way that comparison was futile. Aside from the intelligence of the script, you would be forgiven for assuming there was no common creative ancestry, and even there Brick's sometimes impenetrable slang was replaced by very clear and considered dialogue here. Bloom actually feels more like early, zany Coen Brothers as processed through the more twee sensibilities of Wes Anderson. By the end of the first reel, I was ready to proclaim Johnson's brilliance. Sadly, that feeling evaporated in the third reel, but the journey was well worth taking.

As orphan boys, Stephen and Bloom learned how to run elaborate confidence games designed to benefit all concerned. Now in their thirties, Stephen relishes crafting cons with the intricacy of Russian novels, while Bloom has lost any sense of his own personal identity and wants out. To serve both of their demands, Stephen directs Bloom to one last mark, eccentric heiress Penelope Stamp, who doggedly refuses to follow either of the brothers' expectations.

Now that's the text. The subtext involves the ways in which humans motivate themselves, and even more pointedly, how writers choose to direct their characters and plots. Johnson tips this hand early, and illuminating the illusion behind motion pictures is always a dangerous game to play. I found myself distracted by following both texts on first viewing, taking in the artistry of the screenplay while recognizing its flashiness had betrayed the actual narration. Johnson began a dialogue about the movie in progress that had taken me out of it as a passive audience member, so that I never connected to any of his characters as more than symbols.

Setting that aside for now, Brothers opens with the delightful prologue, then barrels headfirst into the kind of classic capers everyone loves. The humor in the early going is clever, especially the earliest interactions between Bloom and Penelope. Every now and again a character would dash off some profundity or revealing bit, but the movie was at its best when it kept things light, quirky and playful. Unfortunately, the con just isn't as intricate as it needs to be to validate the brothers as world class, and there are too many arbitrary "indie" elements that without the benefit of goodwill would be considered plot holes. In the second reel, the angst and indecision of Bloom seems to translate into that of the screenwriter, agonizing over his inability to compete with the films that inspired him. The tone of the movie breaks down, becoming erratic and uncommitted to any specific direction. The movie seemed to work when it veered toward comforting familiarity, but its ambitions wouldn't allow it to simply serve as a crowdpleaser. Its grasp outstripped its reach, and just as I thought things were wrapping up in a predictable manner, it continued down an ill-considered and poorly realized path toward its final overdue resolution. By the end, I felt like I would rather revisit the similar but more satisfying Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

All of this is through no fault of the cast, and as has become a theme in this post-WGA strike year of cinema, actors are doing most of the heavy lifting lately. Rachel Weisz is presented the very difficult task of playing Penelope as both space case and sage, along with flexing her comedic muscles after years of dramas, and she comes through like a champ. Adrien Brody didn't have to work nearly as hard as Bloom, dealing in his typical gloom, but capable nonetheless. Complementing Mark Ruffalo as Stephen is trickier, as on the one hand his vibrant presence shines through many scenes. On the other, it gives him such an air of benevolence that it removes any doubt about trusting his judgment in manipulating everyone around him. Johnson named Stephen after a James Joyce character, but especially through Ruffalo's representation, a more truthful moniker would have been Gary Stu.

Lending support is Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang, the brothers' typically mum partner and demolitions expert, as well as a consistent source of funny bits. Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell play fellow grifters of more questionable alignment, and are each too broad in the task for my taste. A source soundtrack album is very necessary, as there are some fantastic musical selections here I'd love to own. Finally, the visited cities of the globetrotting crooks must be spoken of, as the sights here are glorious.

The Brothers Bloom is at the very least an entertaining failure. Brick aside, the first half of Brothers builds its own good will that allows it to coast through some rough patches in the second half. Things don't really go awry until the story seem to come to a head, only to limp on and lead into the "twist" ending, which really pisses on common sense and probability. Worse, it fairly rub your nose in that nasty pile of subtext I mentioned earlier. With any luck, there'll be an alternate version on the DVD I can pretend was the actual ending, as I did when Oliver Platt wouldn't go away in The Ice Harvest, or how part of me is still waiting for the first Matrix sequel.

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