Jul 17 2009

The Brothers Bloom

Apologies about the lateness on this review, and the fact that it is not the aforementioned “early review” that we promised. Our screening did not work out as planned. In the meantime, here’s this week’s Film Duel, a few days late.

The Brothers Bloom
Year: 2009
Dir: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weiscz
Genre: Comedy (Con Film)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

The film Brick was the indie gem of 2005 that everyone missed. With it, Rian Johnson created a completely unique blend of noire and spaghetti western and set it in a modern high school. His second film, The Brothers Bloom, is nothing like Brick in the literal sense, but it does carry all of the imagination and uniqueness that Rian Johnson’s first film promised, and takes it all to the next level. Ostensibly, The Brothers Bloom is a con film, but as with Brick, it is really much more than that. The Brothers Bloom combines the Con genre with various distinctively different forms of comedy and well developed drama and mystery as well.

With a much increased budget comes much more recognizable actors, and this time Rian Johnson has managed to draw several Oscar nominated and winning actors in Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kikuchi. Plus, though he’s never received Oscar attention, Mark Ruffalo is perennially likable and appears here as well. All four actors were impressive, but Weisz is the most surprising in her adorably comedic role. Brody is somewhat bland but serviceable as the protagonist, but it appears this is a necessary evil since he serves as point of grounded relatability for the audience. Mark Ruffalo was somewhat disappointing because though the role seemed to call for it, he didn’t bring all the charm that we’ve seen in previous roles. Nonetheless his acting didn’t falter and he does deliver one of the films funniest lines. Another surprising performance comes from Kikuchi, who manages to steal every scene she’s in despite having almost no lines at all. In a performance reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin (as is much of the film) and Harpo Marx, she manages to be the physical comedy and yet simultaneously manage to bring the characters back to reality when they start to inch over the line of believability.

The plot itself does strut the line, as Johnson’s affinity for various genres creates a varying tone throughout, but suffice it to say the primary tone is fun and a little bit whacky. The film also manages an excellent balance between comedy, drama, and the clever procedural elements we’ve come to expect from a con film. To compare the comedy to a Wes Anderson film would not be inaccurate, and yet much of the film brings a poetic brilliance to it that Anderson’s dry humor doesn’t always offer. The dialogue throughout is often painfully clever, and one of the highlights of the film is a rhyming opening in which Ricky Jay as the narrator trades off lines with the characters in the story. One of the most intriguing aspects of the film though is its structure, and the way this variation of tone fits into it. The film begins with the most rigidly “written” techniques, as if strongly guided by a storyteller using strategies such as narration, rhyming, and perfectly written and spoken dialogue but as it continues it starts to devolve into an “unwritten” story, seemingly at the behest of the protagonist Bloom played by Brody. As we reach the conclusion the dialogue gets rougher, the visuals less fantastical, and the conflicts more real. But even after we’ve been pulled from the ease were lulled into in the beginning of the film, Johnson still has a few more tricks up his sleeve and transforms his film from a fun puzzle to something that gets at human truth a little better. As with all con films, things are not what they seem, and this one may actually be pulling its heist on its audience more than the characters inside.

One of the greatest aspects of this film though is the style. The locations are all beautiful, and the one set that was built, a theater used in the conclusion of the film, is even more so. The wardrobe, a strange mix of old and new with a particular focus on a Chaplinesque fashion gives the characters a unique look that really reveals a lot about who they are (particularly the Bloom brothers). Outdated cars and other technology blended with the modern gives the film an anachronistic and timeless appearance that I assume will help this film get a similarly timeless appeal. The cinematography itself is standout. The colors are beautiful, the composition is carefully selected, and wide shots are given often to really give a sense of context and bravado to the scenes. Rian Johnson carefully plans his shots and it shows, for each shot could be a beautiful photograph all by itself. The score of the film compliments these visuals beautifully, and its fascinating melodies and instrumentation would be an entrancing listen even when placed outside of the film completely. It’s nice to see someone (Nathan Johnson, the directors brother) outside of the small stable of famous composers put out something that is not only a good fit for the film, but completely unique from other scores in current films.

I highly recommend that everyone see this film in theaters if possible. It looks incredible on the big screen, and it needs the support. Just because something doesn’t have a big enough marketing budget to reach out to you, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a chance, so see this movie and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Benn says:

The relationship between a con film and it’s audience is very similar to that of a confidence man and his mark; fill that person’s that person’s head with a fantasy full of exotic locals, intricate heists, eccentric characters and level of excitement and wonder that could only be achieved in an adventure novel. The Brothers Bloom achieves this perfectly in the first act, but manages to lose our interest and sell us one too many sour deals during the second act.

The Brothers Bloom begins with a charming little montage of how the two young con men got started in the business as foster children conning their peers for the sake of acceptance and profit. Thirty years later, the Brothers Bloom are known throughout the criminal underworld as the best of their profession.
Stephen (played by the always reliable Mark Ruffalo) acts as the duo’s writer; he constructs every aspect of a con with a flair for theatricality, romance and suspense. Bloom (Adrien Brody), on the other hand, acts as his brother’s lead actor in their schemes, and finds himself unfulfilled and detached from any thing unwritten or real (note: why Bloom’s namesake represents both brothers remains an unaddressed mystery. Don’t ask.). After much debate, Stephen convinces Bloom to join in on one last scam: trick the orphaned, solitary, billionaire Penelope (Rachel Wiesz) into going around the world with them on a false con, trick her out of a large sum of money and drop her back off at her mansion unharmed.

The overall style of the film is guaranteed to capture audience’s attention quickly. The overall look and feel of the film appear to be a collage of the most ideal, fascinating elements of Western lore: the clothing looks like Charlie Chaplin meets the Forties, and the gee-whiz spontaneity and devil-may-care attitude towards boundaries and convention resembles something out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The charm and wonderment of this lifestyle is perfectly personified by Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Stephen, who, in spite of his disdain for normal life and society, orchestrates plots and circumstances where he and his cohorts can experience the greatest of luxuries and beauties life has to offer.

Penelope, on the other hand, reflects our own amazement to the Brothers Bloom’s exciting lifestyle; the secluded, eccentric hobbyist not only experiences life for the first time, but experiences a life that she, and we, could only have dreamed of. Furthermore, Penelope proves to be an intriguing, if not unusual, character herself, as she has spent her entire life virtually alone in her family mansion collecting a wild assortment of hobbies, ranging from photography to break dancing to chainsaw-juggling (all of which Rachel Weisz actually learned how to do).
Unfortunately, all the characters and plotlines aren’t nearly as interesting or compelling. For one, Bloom is boring. Serving as Stephens lead actor in his cons, Bloom feels perpetually detached from society, and from legitimate human emotion. Unfortunately, Brody portrays Bloom as a flat, uninteresting character and misses the desperation and angst that was intended to be the defining element of Bloom’s character.

The plotline itself, with all of it’s sophisticated banter and spirit, takes an odd turn somewhere in the second act that proves to be unnecessarily dark and serious. Writer/director Rian Johnson may have intended the film to take a more serious, more realistic tone following the glitz and glamour of the first half, but who wants to see that in a con film. The life of a confidence man is romantic; introducing the sobering element of realism in the mix is not only unpleasant, it’s simply uncalled for.

Like Stephen’s intricate plots for luxury and adventure, Brothers Bloom’s first act has all the twists and turns, eccentricities, thrills, chills and excitement of a classic adventure story. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Johnson’s attempt for a serious turn of events disturbs the narrative and spirit of the story, and as a result, makes the final chapter’s the Brothers Bloom’s story disappointing and out of place. With this in mind, the initial adventure that the Bloom duo invite us on is enticing and offers us a style, charm and state of mind that is seldom seen in storytelling anymore, and one sorely missed.

Benn’s Rebuttal

Although I enjoyed the film overall, I do disagree with James’ opinion concerning the characters. I thought Ruffalo personified a “Jazz Age” charisma and charm and was, by far, the most entertaining character in the whole film. Brody, on the other hand, was far too flat and boring, bringing down the overall style image that both brothers were supposed to exude to some degree. Although I can understand the inner conflict of Brody’s character, I do think it could have been executed in a much better way, rather than just show Bloom looking mopey in a corner somewhere. As for the emerging realism toward the film’s end: Is that really a good thing? If it all happened subtly, sure, but I felt that Johnson rushed it and threw in some unnecessary characters (Diamond Dog was ridiculous) and subplots. I actually felt that Johnson had too much fun with the first half of the script, then felt the need to make it more dark and heavy and went overboard.

James’ Rebuttal:

While I understand Benn’s objection to the change in tone of the film, I do feel it is necessary to complete Bloom’s character arc.  Bloom is searching for an “unwritten life” and that’s exactly what Stephen ends up giving him.  It is odd though that Stephen does not follow through on his motto that “the perfect con is one in which everyone involved gets what he or she wants.”  While Diamond Dog may be a slightly eccentric part of the last act, it’s not as though he comes out of nowhere.  While his character didn’t completely fit my preferences he had a reason to be in the film nonetheless.  It’s only fitting that things would at some point spin out of Stephen’s control, and with that, much of the poeticism should be removed.  Personally I feel that the film works in its entirety and not simply it’s first two acts.  It’s as Joss Whedon has often been quoted: “The key to storytelling is giving the audience not what they want, but what they need.”

One Response to “The Brothers Bloom”

  • My Top 10 Favorite Movies of the First Half of 2009 | Lock, Stock, and Two Film Geeks Says:

    […] I love me a good con movie, I love me a good comedy, and I love me some good genre bending.  This accomplishes all three, and it does it with flourish and style.  Not only does Rian Johnson take a little from some of his (and my) favorite films, but he adds some brilliant flairs of his own and brings it together in a surprisingly unified palette.  This is a ton of fun to watch, it’s clever, it’s a little meta-fictional (which I’m also a sucker for), and it even brings it home with some touching emotional beats.  This also my favorite musical score of the year.  Highly recommended on all accounts.  Benn and I reviewed it in depth in our Film Duel column. […]

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