Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Brothers Bloom opens with narration by magician Ricky Jay, the con man from House of Games reprising his role as the ominous opening narrator of Magnolia. That’s your first hint that the film is obsessed with cinema. Rian Johnson deliriously spins his pulp narrative, a complicated con story that weaves and darts across exotic Europe. But any time the story tries for sentiment, it leaves us cold.
You see, The Brothers Bloom has a heck of a time setting its traps and playing magician, but there’s also a weighty thread about one brother, Bloom (Adrien Brody), feeling increasingly downtrodden about his life’s artificiality, yearning for “an unwritten life.” Naturally his brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), their tactiturn explosions expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), and their latest mark, an eccentric hobby collector (Rachel Weisz, the show's triumph), try to cheer him up, but all this sincerity collides with our natural inclination to suspect ulterior motives. You can see how this is a problem when Johnson’s searching for tears or at least sympathy, which he does far too often for such a fun, flighty film.
Take Johnson’s debut, Brick, a story full of twists and cons, gambits and surrenders. Brendan is some Joe sucked into this world, so we connect with him and his accompanying emotional entanglements without suspecting hidden agendas. But nobody buys a con man’s relationship. There’s a reason Harry Lime doesn’t have a romantic arc.
Which is all the more disappointing, because the surface narrative, a pulpy, cosmopolitan adventure in the vein of The Lives of Harry Lime, is a vivacious affair, an exuberantly colored balloon struggling to jettison its dead weight. Johnson absolutely nails the settings, which require a more exotic, romantic side of Europe than the overexposed vistas of Paris and London. Instead, we visit Montenegro and Prague and St. Petersburg and out-of-the-way Mexico, charming backdrops to the old-fashioned capers on display. Stephen's ingenious plots are fascinating, Bang Bang is hilarious without saying much, and Weisz's parade of hobbies is a marvel.
The Brothers Bloom is so full of magic—a heart-shaped mirror, a theatrical finale, a transcendent interlude with a resplendent red apple, card tricks galore—that its hefty baggage doesn’t come close to ruining the experience. Still, like Bloom himself, I can’t help but wish the tale were a little less self-conscious and a little more unwritten.