The Brothers Bloom is a movie that desperately wants to be liked, and I desperately wanted to like it. It certainly has its moments, but, like writer-director Rian Johnson's first movie, Brick, Bloom is too pre-occupied with its own cleverness to ever fully take off.
After two films, Johnson has shown himself to be a talented stylist. His obsession with affectation makes for charming, entertaining experiences, but he has yet to find a story that resonates on a level that's above precocious film school posturing. Brick was a well-made but empty exercise, the kind of movie that you'd expect from a gifted NYU graduate student eager to show off his newly acquired bag of tricks.
Bloom is a better movie, but still empty, and Johnson further stacks the deck against himself by emulating the whimsical storybook aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Anderson, a popular but problematic filmmaker himself, is also obsessed with artifice but is a smart enough writer to layer his trivial stories with a deeper pathos.
Not so with Johnson; his characters never come to life so the sentimentality is never earned and never resonates. What that leaves with The Brothers Bloom is an instantly forgettable amusement.
The story, which opens with a narration by Ricky Jay (who also provided the memorable voice-over for Magnolia), unfolds like an old-fashioned Hollywood con comedy. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are orphan brothers who learn the art of the confidence game as young boys. As adults, they're well-traveled and highly regarded as the best of their kind (one more fantastic element of the film is that everyone seems to know the brothers except for their marks).
Bloom, the younger, weaker brother, is having an identity crisis--an occupational hazard for someone who spends his entire life pretending to be other people--and is ready to throw in the towel and retire. Stephen, who's addicted to his chosen profession and has no intention of quitting, talks Bloom into one last con.
Along with their sidekicks--the mute explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) and the antique-smuggling Belgian (Robbie Coltrane)--the brothers target wealthy eccentric Penelope (Rachel Weisz) through an elaborate plan involving a globetrotting series of car accidents, explosions, museum thefts and faked deaths.
Penelope, a socially deficient shut-in who "collects hobbies" (a hilarious montage reminiscent of Rushmore highlights her grab bag of self-taught talents, one of which is juggling chainsaws), falls for Bloom.
The rest of the plot is a predictable series of twists and turns; if you've seen one con film you've seen them all. After a certain point it just becomes a game of seeing how many steps ahead of the movie you can be: this person cons this person who was conning this person all along, and on and on. An old foe from the past must reappear, someone must die, someone else must make a Tough Decision, and everyone must learn a lesson.
Apart from the particularly snappy dialogue, nothing about the script sets The Brothers Bloom apart from any other con story. That's obviously part of Johnson's goal--he wants to bask in convention, and he does. But he doesn't elevate it.
This is the movie's biggest failure; it doesn't play like lively homage, it just feels like tired retread. Only the bells and whistles of the technical department--an energetic camera, several inventive set pieces and some amazing set and costume design--are able to reach the ambition of Johnson's vision. It's sad, really. Johnson is surrounded by artists working on his behalf, and he's upstaged by all of them.
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