The Brothers Bloom (review)

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One Last Con

I guess it’s true that all movies about attractive criminals appeal to the audience’s desire to see what it’s like to live an unconventional life, even if that desire endures only for the length of the film. But no such movie that I’ve ever seen has ached more with yearning on the part of the attractive criminals for a different life than the one they have than The Brothers Bloom does. And that invests this deliciously clever, convention-busting flick with more soul than you’d expect, because it’s not just a puzzle about plot — as most movies about con artists typically are — and not just a puzzle about movies — as few movies even dare to attempt: it’s a puzzle about personality and potential and perspective and people.

The brothers Bloom — Stephen (Mark Ruffalo: Blindness, Reservation Road) is the elder, and the younger is called simply Bloom (Adrien Brody: The Darjeeling Limited, King Kong) — have been pulling cons since they were in grade school. But they’re not about getting rich… or least, not only about getting rich. Their cons are opulent narratives woven with such great care that those they’re conning never realize they’ve been conned, and indeed end their association with the brothers believing they’ve had the adventure of their lives. Their idea of the perfect con is to tell a story so well that it becomes real. And they’ve been very successful at it.

But it’s become routine for Bloom: it’s no longer unconventional, just tiring, and he wants to quit. So Stephen, the mastermind of their cons, promises that this next one will be the last one, and they’ll go out in style.

So far, so good: it’s much like every other one-last-con movie we’ve ever seen. And like every other one-last-con movie we’ve ever seen, you cannot help but go into it expecting that you, the viewer, are going to be conned, too, that red-herring wool will be pulled over your eyes and that you’ll have been tricked in the best way by the end. But there’s a wicked cinematic beauty to The Brothers Bloom: like the brothers’ cons themselves, you may well never suspect that you’ve been conned. You may well be totally unsure whether you have been conned at all. I’m not sure myself. And that’s a delectable experience.

It starts with something as small as having Ricky Jay (Redbelt, The Great Buck Howard) narrate the opening sequence, which introduces us to the brothers (played as youngsters by Zachary Gordon [Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, National Treasure: Book of Secrets] and Max Records [Max in the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are]) at the beginning of their career. You probably have to know con movies to know who Ricky Jay is — he’s a stage trickster who almost invariably appears as an actor playing a con artist in con movies — but writer-director Rian Johnson is hoping you know con movies. He’s relying on it, in fact, because his great is-it-a-con-or-isn’t-it con works better the more you know con movies. So: Ricky Jay. Anyone who knows con movies instantly says to herself, “Of course Ricky Jay will appear here, because it’s a movie about con artists,” and then, “Of course it’s a movie about con artists, because Ricky Jay is in it.”

And then Ricky Jay is never heard from again.

But that’s minor. The big deal — the really scrumptious deal — is that Johnson weaves a sense of time that’s timeless and place that’s placeless and narrative space that follows no rules but its own. We never know if we’re watching a Wes Anderson-esque grownup Looney Tune or a Coen Brothers spike-edged dramedy or a David Mamet swindle-without-the-smug. And we don’t need to choose, because it’s all those things at once. It’s a movie-con put-on and a sweetly self-aware romance and an enormous jape of a popular entertainment all at the same time.

Their last victim/recipient of their escapade-giving largess is fabulously wealthy and fabulously bored heiress Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz: Definitely, Maybe, Fred Claus). She’s magnificently preposterous, an amiably innocent cartoon, a polymath of hobbies who invents stuff to do for herself — juggling chainsaws; building cameras into vegetables; etc. — but nothing really satisfies. She jumps at the “chance” to steam off to Europe — yes, steam, with oversize wardrobe trunks and cocktails and cravats on the deck and everything — with the brothers on a quest for an impossibly valuable old book, and is even more intrigued when she “accidentally” discovers that the brothers are not the antiquarians they presented themselves as but are “in fact” smugglers of rare and beautiful things.

She’s so unbelievable a person — and so warm and charming and beautiful and innocent — that Bloom says to Stephen, “She feels like one of your characters.” He’s suspicious, perhaps, that something more is up with this con, but we’re way ahead of him: we’ve been suspicious for quite a while that Stephen has invented Penelope, or at least chosen her very specifically, and concocted this one-last-con so that his brother will fall in love with her and go off into the sunset happily (never knowing that Stephen set it all up, of course), instead of in misery over abandoning Stephen. And the moment Stephen warns Bloom, “Don’t fall in love with her,” we know that must be Stephen’s intention with the whole deal. Don’t we?

Oh, gosh, I’m can’t tell you any more. I haven’t spoiled anything yet, and in fact The Brothers Bloom may be almost impossible to spoil — well, I could tell you too much about the brothers’ assistant and munitions expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi: Babel), but that would be mean of me — because even after you know how events (apparently) play out, you won’t be sure how they played out at all. Penelope marvels at one point that “a photograph is like a secret about a secret — the more it tells you, the less you know.” And that’s true of Bloom as well.

Rian Johnson wowed us a few years back with his high-school noir Brick, but if that impressive debut was a little wave hello, The Brothers Bloom is an unignorable punch to the arm. Johnson is a major new talent, and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

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Tue, May 19, 2009 4:59pm

Wow! I was already looking forward to this seeing as how i’m also a big fan of Brick, so consider my anticipation doubled.

Rian Johnson does seem to be making quite a name for himself and if this film is as good as i think it’ll be, i’ll be there opening day for all his future films.

I can’t wait to see it.

Tue, May 19, 2009 7:22pm

Saw it last weekend and its great. Rachel Weisz is probably the best actress working today, she’s amazing in this film.

Mon, May 25, 2009 4:07pm

This movie is so fantastic. Easily my favorite of the year to date. Actually, my top three of the year are your 2-4, and they are even in the same order. I put The Soloist a little bit lower in my list, because I didn’t connect with it in quite the same way you did. I recognize it’s superior quality from a technical and narrative standpoint, but something about it didn’t ignite that extra spark in me that catapults movies into the realm of the numinous.

Tony Cravat
Sat, Jul 24, 2010 12:34pm

I can’t believe The Brothers Bloom didn’t get a wider audience. It is a great film but seems to have passed most people by.