The following review was first published for the Boston Film Festival. Brothers Bloom is being released in select cities today.
Whatever magical ability Wes Anderson once had to mesh well-crafted, supremely acted films with heart-bump, pitter-patter, soul-tug whimsy may have left him in 2001, but the spirit of Anderson’s first three films has been transplanted into the talent of Rian Johnson. In tone and aesthetic, The Brothers Bloom is the spiritual successor to The Royal Tenenbaums, but it’s less wink/nudge, less precocious, less satisfied with its own sense of cleverness, and even more novelistic in its approach. It possess the same heightened sense of reality, though; the same offbeat sensibility, and the same fairy-tale quality that Tenenbaums radiated, only The Brothers Bloom is the sort of fairy tale you might hear Ricky Jay recite to distract you from a 90-minute sleight of hand trick. And it’d work, too; so engrossed would you be in the tale of The Brothers Bloom that Jay could empty your bank accounts, unload all the contents of your house, and steal your wife without your notice.
The Brothers Bloom — which opened the Boston Independent Film Festival this week — is the magnificent, melancholy, borderline-screwball love story about the lives of two con men, Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo). As children, they were shuffled from one foster family to another (38 all told), but always quickly returned to an orphanage after they misbehaved themselves out of the one-hat towns where they were forced to interact with playground bourgeoisies. Along the way, however, they found their calling. They became confidence men. But not just any con men — their cons were elaborate, intricate, and precise. Stephen designed the cons, and they were like the work of a dead Russian novelist, with “thematic arcs and shit.”
The rub? Over the course of their lives, along with a Chinese-speaking Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), Bloom becomes just another role-player in Stephen’s cons, all of which were designed, ultimately, to swindle someone out of millions and leave a big bow on the ending in the form of a love interest for Bloom. But Bloom never feels satisfied with the artificiality of it all — having never felt anything real or spontaneous, Bloom’s just another character in Stephen’s cons living a life written for him. Uncomfortable with his life as a character, Bloom intends to quit the con business, but not before Stephen lures him back in for one last scheme.
The gig? To swindle Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric millionaires, out of her millions. Penelope would seem an easy target: a lonely, epileptic photographer who “collects hobbies.” The plan? Manipulate Penelope into falling in love with Bloom, then tap into her dormant sense of adventure, and involve her in a con within the con. But the rabbit hole is too deep, and as Bloom begins, himself, to fall in love with Penelope, he can’t figure out where the con ends and real life begins; is he himself just another con within the con within the con?
The same goes doubly for the audience, who views the world through the eyes of Bloom, but Rian Johnson balances the con game and the love story almost perfectly. You’re never entirely sure who is being conned: Bloom, Penelope, or the audience, but the biting comedy, the sharp writing, and the blossoming romance is so effective that what level of con you’re in almost becomes secondary. Mark Ruffalo is charmingly slick in an uncharacteristic role in which he’s not any form of mope, which is Adrien Brody’s territory in The Brothers Bloom and he plays his part perfectly: A sad, empty man waiting for his inner puppy dog to rise to the surface and lick the world’s face. But it’s the two women in The Brother’s Bloom who steal it, own it, and sell it back to you for twice the price. Rinko Kikuchi, who barely has any lines (she doesn’t speak English) is the comedic scene stealer and explosives expert, who completely makes you forget that, at its heart, The Brothers Bloom is a story about an elaborate crime. Rachel Weisz, meanwhile, has the almost unenviable task of selling all that quirk, but she grounds it so well that it never comes off as overly clever or trying too hard. It’s as good as I’ve ever seen her.
The meticulously plotted narrative does, however, come apart ever so slightly in the end — in a movie where the cons are layered into other cons like Matryoshka dolls, the end of each con feels like a possible end to the movie. Unlike most movies that feel like they could’ve ended 17 times, Johnson could’ve picked any point in the last third of the movie as a stopping point and it would’ve felt satisfying, though none would’ve packed the emotional wallop as the final conclusion, one that feels appropriate for one of Stephen’s dead Russian novelist, or at least a crowd-pleasing version of Dostoevsky. Some may also complain that Johnson’s movie owes too much to Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but that seems an insignificant and unfair slight, particularly when you’re borrowing elements from two of the best, and arguably making them better.
I don’t want to say more, and perhaps I’ve already said too much — anything you hear about The Brothers Bloom is one less thing you get to discover for yourself. It’s the rare film that is as smart as it is entertaining. Indeed, every second of The Brothers Bloom feels alive — it’s full of energy and verve and motherfucking oomph. It’s completely transportive.
Early in the film, Stephens says, “It seems to be that the perfect con is the one where each person involved gets just the thing they wanted.” It’s an appropriate sentiment. The Brothers Bloom never feels like a movie designed to separate you from the cost of a ticket; it feels like a piece of altruistic entertainment. And maybe that makes The Brothers Bloom the perfect con — you give up $10, and in exchange, you get two hours of sublime happiness. Everyone gets exactly what they want.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You may email him or leave a comment below