In one sense, writer/director Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is a refreshing change of pace from recent con films like the Ocean’s series. It has its share of twists and surprises, but its focus is on its characters and their developing relationships, and this makes for a more engaging experience. In another sense, though, this doesn’t entirely work. For two-thirds of the movie it’s a con flick, with all of the betrayals and one-upsmanship that an audience would come to expect from the genre, but then its third act is devoted to a love story that, while emotionally satisfying, almost comes as a let-down because it doesn’t involve any big reveals or final grand twists. This is, again, refreshing in a way, but the change of pace is a little too awkward to totally sustain the interest level.
Taking a cue from Magnolia, the film opens with an introductory narration by Ricky Jay, who in addition to being an accomplished magician and master of sleight of hand also possesses one of the most enjoyably intriguing and soothing voices there is. He takes us through the childhood of the titular brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), where we see them learn the art of the con at a very young age, with the elder brother (Stephen) discovering his talent for writing stories that manipulate people’s behavior and play them into his schemes. This is fun, light-hearted, funny, and a fitting introduction to what will be a “joy ride”-type of movie.
When we catch up to the brothers as adults, we see that they are well-established as some of the best con men in the world. We also learn that Bloom has become disillusioned with their chosen life, in particular his frequent role as the love interest in Stephen’s scams. He longs to wake up next to somebody and know that they are there for him, not the character he’s playing in a con; he yearns to live “an unwritten life.” Brody and Ruffalo, while looking very physically dissimilar, are thoroughly convincing as brothers, and watching them play off of each other is one of this movie’s highlights. The other, of course, is the always-great Rachel Weisz, who plays Penelope Stamp, the rich heiress who will be the mark in what the brothers agree will be their final con.
The role of Penelope is a tricky one, but it allows ample room to exhibit Weisz’s considerable talents. She’s a shut-in with many eccentricities, and her character oscillates between naiveté and savviness: at times we think she’s just along for the ride, hoping to inject some adventure into her life without really knowing what she’s getting herself into, but at others we’re convinced she just might be the one doing the conning. Weisz keeps us guessing throughout the film, injecting her character with her typical overt charm, yes, but also with an underlying cleverness, too. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.
These three are joined by a pyrotechnic expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), a mostly silent character who provides comic relief; she’s Johnson’s version of a Harpo Marx character, and her presence provides a lot of nice little touches peppered throughout the film.
Rian Johnson is, in fact, an expert at sprinkling clues and foreshadowing throughout his script in a very naturalistic manner. When one character comments at the start of the film that the problem with fake blood is that it doesn’t turn brown after a time, for example, we instantly know there will come a point later in the film where discolored blood stains will inform us of a major event. Setting up developments in this manner and then paying them off is very satisfying for an audience, and it’s pleasantly indicative of maturity on the part of the writer. Unfortunately there are other examples to the contrary, the one that I personally found most annoying being a character called Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), who is a rival of sorts of the brothers, but their history is never explained to us, or even hinted at. Diamond Dog simply shows up out of nowhere, and we see that Stephen hates him and Bloom fears him, but it’s left at that. He exists as a purely gimmick of a character, without any story or motivation of his own, and worse, without his relation to the protagonists ever being developed. I was fortunate enough to see this film at a screening where Johnson was present to do a Q&A afterwards, and during it he explained that even he didn’t know this character’s backstory; he conceived of him in terms of only what we’re shown on screen. This is one of the most telling examples I’ve seen of just how important a thorough sense of verisimilitude is to a film: while a character might not need his story to be completely told on screen, that story should at least exist, if even in an underdeveloped sense. The result of not doing this is not only a weaker character, but also a suspicion on the part of the audience: I found that it actually broke my suspension of disbelief to have to be subjected to scenes involving a completely unbelievable character occasionally interacting with the otherwise fully-developed ones. (This article on the topic of verisimilitude, which I was pointed to by Chas, is well worth reading in its own right, but it also has fitting relevance to The Brothers Bloom.)
Visually, the film is really pleasant to look at, thanks in large part to its wide and varied locations, from Prague to Mexico. There are titles that introduce several scenes, a little reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums, and they help maintain the playful overall mood of the film, serving as repeated visual reminders of how Stephen diagrams his cons, a practice we saw him develop as a child in the film’s introductory scenes. There are some shots where Johnson prefers to keep the action in the background or even outside of the frame completely, and whereas in his first film Brick I assumed that such techniques were at times used due to budget constraints, here it feels more natural and fitting to the style of the tale itself. I caught myself leaning forward in my seat on a couple of occasions, trying to peer around a corner to see what wasn’t being shown in the frame. Such instances can sometimes be annoying, but here I took them rather as a pleasant sign of my engagement in the story being told.
There are lots of little elements like this, all of which add up to The Brothers Bloom being a very fun movie. It takes you along for a ride that doesn’t let up until it’s time for the more character-driven love story to take over, and while this transition isn’t totally smooth and I think some audiences will feel that the end of the film drags a bit as a result (I count myself among such audiences), at the same time it’s a refreshing way to approach the con movie genre. It’s also an enjoyable chance to see a developing young writer-director. He’s not quite as polished as, say, a Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), but he’s definitely intriguing. Having as seasoned a cast as he does here surely doesn’t hurt, and the quality of their performances (particularly Rachel Weisz) helps to carry the film over the otherwise rough patches in Johnson’s script. He’s certainly a savvy filmmaker, though, who goes out of his way to connect with his audience (see, for example, the theatrical audio commentary he’s made available). The Brothers Bloom is not his masterpiece, but it is an enjoyable and interesting step along the way, and a pretty good movie in its own right, despite a few flaws.