Rian Johnson’s debut film, Brick is rightly lauded as a masterpiece. The winning combination of a “Bogart-esque” murder mystery set in a modern day high school won many awards; including no less than “Film of the Decade” from my fellow reviewer Alex (He’s wrong of course. Film of the Decade was obviously Crank). It showcased the talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who previously had been known only as that kid on Third Rock from the Sun but it also presented the emergence of a new voice behind the camera – as writer & director, Johnson had created something very special with his first film. It was several years before his second effort broke cover and even then, it had a somewhat protracted release. Filmed in 2008, it was actually shown at that year’s London Film Festival. However, it sat on the shelf for 2 years, only received a limited UK release this year and has finally now arrived on DVD/download formats. Titled The Brothers Bloom, it’s a very different prospect to Brick, but still manages to maintain that air of detached dreamlike reality that Johnson’s first film so effortlessly portrayed.
In the prologue, we are introduced to the Brothers – Stephen and Bloom; young children pushed from one foster home to the next. In an opening built on cleverly staged rhyming couplets, the pair plan and execute their first ever con on the local children, netting a healthy profit. Stephen has clearly found his calling, but Bloom is already having doubts about the life he’s letting himself in for. Fast forward 25 years, and the brothers are two of the best conmen in the business, but as they scam another “punter”, Bloom declares he wants out. Unsurprisingly, he is soon lured back in by the promise of one last job…. The target, an incredibly wealthy, orphaned, social recluse named Penelope. More than happy to be whisked away from her lonely dull existence into a smuggling caper by two “antiques dealers”, Penelope falls for the brothers’ plan hook, line and sinker. And Bloom (the younger) quickly falls for Penelope.
Are they both called Bloom? That would be logical as several characters call them the brothers Bloom. But then that would make the younger brother’s name Bloom Bloom? It’s one of a few oddities that are intentionally left unclear in the film, giving it a fairy-tale quality that charms and infuriates in equal measure. The characters travel the globe in stunning yachts and glamorous trains, unmolested by border patrols or police forces. Everything is dreamlike, magical. This extends even to their target Penelope, who, in her copious amounts of spare time, has mastered a bewildering array of hobbies, such as juggling (fruit, chainsaws, chainsaws whilst on a unicycle) a wide array of instruments and can speak almost any language on cue. The film tries to portray her as quirky but, as is so often the case, she rarely achieves more than annoying – a surprise to me as she is portrayed by Rachel Weisz, an actress I generally enjoy.
The rest of the cast are all well known actors; clearly the chance to work with the director of Brick was a strong draw. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody portray the brothers Stephen and Bloom respectively. They capture the dynamic of the pairing well and are fairly believable as life long siblings. Ruffalo’s is the stronger performance as the brasher, charismatic older brother. Brody is required to play the overshadowed younger brother, unsure whether he has ever actually made a choice in his life or always done what Stephen told him. He’s well suited for this part with that wonderful hang-dog expression of his. Robbie Coltrane has a wonderful, albeit small, role as a Belgian conman, his presence simply screaming off-beat weirdness, right down to his accent which a character amusingly mistakes as French. The stand out performance however is from an actress I was not familiar with: Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the brother’s silent partner ‘Bang Bang’. Silent, in that she is given almost no dialogue in the entire film, but a host of wonderful sight gags as the team fixer, driver and demolitions expert. Kikuchi breaths life into a character that could easily have been no more than a running gag, but who becomes a genius creation with a fascinating outlook on life and the brothers themselves.
Johnson has certainly secured a much larger budget here than in his debut. The story takes the group across Europe and the film takes in several real world locations. Of particular beauty is the central sequences set in Prague. A stunning location to begin with, Johnson shoots the city as well as the actors, taking full opportunity to use the wonderful vistas presented to him. It’s a significant contrast with the final third which is supposed to take place in St Petersburg, but which is shot in non-distinct locations with little to no architecture shown on screen, suggesting that these sections are not filmed in an accurate location. This is a real disappointment given the stand out cinematography of the first half of the film, but which also, in an odd way, mirrors the progression of the story from fairytale whimsy into what becomes a disappointing and bland close. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the film’s ending, but the dive into melancholy is badly at odds with the breezy events previously shown. Such a sharp turn in emotion is often a requirement for crime capers such as these and is always a difficult trick to pull off, but this film is not really successful in doing so, leaving the viewer somewhat empty at the end. Part of it is in the setup (why are the characters debating over a ransom when Penelope clearly has several trillion available on tap?) Part is the execution, with Brody in particular guilty of some rather bad overacting at the end.
While ongoing, the Brothers Bloom is a entertaining conman caper that just about keeps the audience on their toes with the usual round of double crosses and reveals. Utilising its dream like construction to the fullest, it is at its best in the central sequences as the brothers’ plan to swindle Penelope plays out. Unfortunately, as it moves into its final third, the attempts to give the light frothy story emotional weight prove too much for Johnson as story elements misfire instead of paying off. Stephen (Bloom?) believes every con must have story. And, just as importantly, that everyone must walk away getting what they want. In the case of The Brothers Bloom, it certainly provides an entertaining enough story, but I didn’t walk away getting everything I’d hoped for.