Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias both posted yesterday about one of my favorite movies, Rian Johnson’s writer-director debut Brick. I’d been afraid to see Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom for fear of it not living up to the Brick standard. The reviews have been mixed with way too many comparisons to Wes Anderson for my comfort. Last night, I took the plunge.
Luckily, I was much relieved. What comes through is Johnson’s ability to craft a world with new rules. Brick was fantastic because it was able to pull off a world in which high-schoolers didn’t go to class or interact with many adults at all. Instead they dealt in intrigue and drugs. He does the same basic thing in Brothers Bloom, albeit with far less ambition.
The plot centers around a pair of con-men brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) conning a lonely heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). Stephen loves the life of the con, viewing con artistry as more akin to novel-writing than theft, while the younger Bloom wants out after 23 years of lies. Together the two of them, with the help of enigmatic mute explosions expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) set up a story of smugglers and a prayer book and I’ll leave it there for fear of giving away too much.
One of the things I was worried about was the acting. I’ve never been a big fan of any of the stars of Brothers Bloom and the movie didn’t especially change my mind. Mark Ruffalo definitely does the best job as con artiste Stephen whose goal is to pull off the perfect con in which everyone gets what they want, including the mark. Adrien Brody seems too old to play the melancholic younger brother, but his performance doesn’t detract too much from the film overall. Rachel Weisz works as the eccentric Penelope who has more money than she knows what to do with, so she spends her time picking up new hobbies.
Brothers Bloom does tend toward the cutesy eccentric at some points (like Penelope performing her series of talents for Bloom), but Johnson doesn’t do it badly. It’s not nearly as good a film as Brick was, but there’s no way it could have been. It reminds me of the story of a woman at a party telling Joseph Heller that he never wrote a book as good as Catch-22, to which he responded, “Sure, but who has?” He could have gone with any number of sappy endings, but Johnson is too talented for that. The biggest achievement of Brothers Bloom is that it makes con artists interesting again. There have been plenty of good con movies (Confidence, Criminal, Catch Me If You Can) but they all made conning into just another job. Johnson brings out the art aspect of the con. One of the best parts of the movie is when Penelope points out that the name of a ship she is on with the brothers is the same as the one in Melville’s The Confidence Man while the brothers’ fake Belgian smuggler’s name is Melville. Stephen looks embarrassed and mumbles “I haven’t read that one.” What Stephen wants to be is a writer, but all he knows is the con.
Most of all I’m looking forward to what Johnson does next. His first two have been strong efforts in distinctly different genres. I don’t think he’s trying to be like Wes Anderson or anyone else. This movie was a bit quirky, but his next project is a sci-fi movie about hitmen and time travel so maybe he’s taking the Jim Jarmusch tack and plans to try his hand at a bunch of different genres. Whatever his plans are, next time I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.