Eugene Weekly : Movies : 6.25.09


The Last Con
Rian Johnson’s second film takes time to blossom
by Molly Templeton

THE BROTHERS BLOOM: Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Cinematography, Steve Yedlin. Editing, Gabriel Wrye. Music, Nathan Johnson. Starring Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi and Robbie Coltrane. Summit Entertainment, 2009. PG-13. 113 min.

Three years ago, director Rian Johnson knocked it out of the park with his feature-length debut Brick, a high-school noir about a tousled young man trying to solve the murder of his girlfriend. The film snuck up on me and landed easily in my top 10 list that year. So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I awaited The Brothers Bloom, Johnson’s follow-up, for which trailers have been floating around for ages. Bloom was supposed to appear last fall, then last winter. The delay gave my expectations time to creep dangerously high. 

Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo in The Brothers Bloom

If, like me, you’ve got the highest of high hopes, you might wish to temper them — just a touch. Be patient rather than giddy, and give yourself time with this one.

Bloom is a quirky, swift-moving con man love story that zooms all over the globe, but it’s taken me a good week to come around to its possibilities. The film is set in an elusive time period: People own cell phones and take steamer ships, drive new sports cars and run away to rocky coasts to sleep in hammocks. The brothers Bloom, as children, wear miniature versions of the black suits and hats they will wear throughout. Indeed, they are miniature versions of the people they will be throughout: Stephen, the elder, sees in his younger brother’s dreamy, romantic nature the chance to paint him a life, to tell a story so well it becomes true (there are other benefits to Stephen’s storytelling, of course). And so the boy devises a cunning plan, all narrated, in a clever rhyming voiceover, by the magician Ricky Jay. It’s the perfect con, the elder Bloom decides: Everyone gets just the thing they want. Or do they?

And thus Johnson gives us one part of his thesis, which could apply to movies, or to life, as easily as it does to these cons. Bloom is full of lines that spell out where the story is headed, and while they sit a bit awkwardly at first, they’re there to tease, to misdirect your attention. Twenty years down the line, Bloom (Adrien Brody) wants out; he’s tired of acting in piece after piece written and directed by his brother. But Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) has one last mark in his sights. He spins for Bloom a tale about a rich, hobby-collecting eccentric, Penelope Stamp (an effervescent Rachel Weisz), whom they will involve in a fabricated adventure story in order to divest her of a bit of her wealth. It’s a delightful yarn, one involving a banana-seat bicycle, a Belgian (Robbie Coltrane), several countries, a theft and an explosion, the last courtesy of the brothers’ explosives expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi).

A lot of things go contrary to the plan — not least that Bloom, inevitably, falls for Penelope. The end of this con is no end at all; it becomes a messy, half-hearted scam on a woman too smart to be played with. But she is also an exceptionally well-chosen mark; the lure of the game, of learning a new trick, is too much for her. Or maybe it’s love. Or a little of both. Love is the driving force for all three characters, and at times The Brothers Bloom’s heart is almost at odds with its quirky, lighthearted gusto. 

It would be unfair to say too much about Bloom’s close, which complicates explaining why, exactly, it seems a film that will have more to offer on a second or third viewing. There are literary, musical and cinematic references by the handful — too many to catch at once — and there are layers upon layers to each con. And there’s a particular satisfaction in the way the pieces shift and circle around each other, the story woven by Stephen reflecting the story given to us by Johnson. It’s one in which we can slip between the layers, arguing about where the con ends, whether the stories we tell ourselves might be told well enough to come true, and why we need that from them in the first place. Stephen’s stories spin out like truths, but are nothing but manipulative falsehoods — until they aren’t. As Jay says in that opening voiceover, “A bitter ending? Maybe. But there’s sweetness in the mix.”

The Brothers Bloom opens Friday, June 26, at the Bijou.