Movie Review: The Brothers Bloom (2008)

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"I wanted to make a movie that is essentially very good-hearted. It's about life being this grand story that you can tell. We can't control what the world gives us, but we can control how we tell it back to ourselves, our story. And if you tell it well, and tell it as a beautiful worthwhile adventure, in a way that's what you can make your life into."

-- Writer/Director Riann Johnson
(As Quoted in The Brothers Bloom Production Notes)

As a child, Riann Johnson was enchanted by the tales of comedic adventure and the con man landscape discovered while watching The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. So when it came time for the filmmaker's hotly anticipated sophomore project following the smash success of his Sundance award winning Brick, Johnson decided to make his own version of a quirky globetrotting humorous con tale.

Essentially it's a film that blends together the fields of magic and the con trade to literal visual sleight of hand by the characters who populate the brightly colored landscape as well as in the complex, multi-layered screenplay. Moreover the fascinating thing about Brothers Bloom is that as Johnson himself noted "eventually it evolved into a film about storytelling and the way we use storytelling in our lives."

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Likewise, the acclaimed Oscar nominated and Oscar winning cast seemed equally intrigued by the idea of the film's notion that we are constantly telling our own story since as actors they routinely must "con" or fool audiences into buying into the fact that they're someone completely different for two hours. However, to dub Bloom simply a "con" movie is to miss the point entirely.

Essentially, The Brothers Bloom works successfully as a movie that celebrates film and humanistic storytelling, all the while somehow managing to intermingle a wonderful and offbeat appreciation for a truly unique set of characters. Having been delayed for release since last Fall, Johnson's film finally lands in theatres this week in my neck of the woods opposite the titan that is Terminator Salvation.

Yet seeing the two movies just one day apart, I can honestly say that not only is Bloom far superior to the mega-budget, big studio blockbuster franchise picture but it's also my favorite sleeper film of the summer so far and one that should appeal to fans of last year's irresistible Son of Rambow.

Obviously influenced not just by The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but initially in its narration by Ricky Jay (Magnolia narrator, real-life magician, and frequent David Mamet player) it seems to be also drawing from the well of Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, and most pointedly Wes Anderson. In fact, when it started, it seemed like the next installment from Wes Anderson, before he went off the deep end with Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited. And intriguingly as it stars his Darjeeling lead Adrien Brody, I couldn't help but wish that this superior film would have been released in Darjeeling's place.

Like the aforementioned title, the dynamic centers on brothers although this time and for good measure, we're only introduced to two in the form of Stephen (What Doesn't Kill You and Zodiac star Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody).

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Having survived a rotten youth going from one foster home to the next-- it isn't long before they realize that they could become the architects of their own lives. This epiphany comes from Stephen's decision to look out for his younger brother by engineering stories (cons really) that "Bloom" likens to Russian novels. And similarly, it's curious right from the start that Brody's character is never saddled with a first name since overall, it's that problem that we're faced with twenty-five years later as we catch up with the Brothers Bloom.

By adulthood, we discover the Brothers have come a long, long way from suburban playground cons to major larceny and "fake deaths" complete with pyrotechnics courtesy of their "fifth Beatle," the mostly silent Bang Bang (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi). Yet once again and mirroring his endless wish, Brody's Bloom tells his brother he wants to quit the con.

It seems that Brody is tired of waking up next to people who think he's someone else and realizing that he actually has no identity other than the one supplied for him in the elaborate, highly literary puzzling cons Stephen creates wherein his brother promises "everyone gets what they want."

Yet, as far as Bloom is concerned, he tells his brother that all he wants is "an unwritten life." Not content to just write him out completely however, the two split ways temporarily until Stephen and Bang Bang entice Bloom to get involved in the old genre favorite of the final, ultimate score that will set them up for life.

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Leaving an exotic foreign locale for New Jersey (!), Bloom quickly meets and is disarmed by their newest mark, Rachel Weisz's Penelope. A thirty-three year old, exceedingly shy, epileptic recluse, Penelope "collects hobbies" ranging from pinhole photography in watermelons to learning fourteen languages when she isn't busy crashing her Lamborghini into inanimate objects in lieu of parking.

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Figuring that with her driving skills, the crash would be the best way in, Bang Bang and Stephen gleefully send Bloom riding a banana-seated bicycle down a hill where she indeed strikes him, before things go wrong, her epilepsy kicks in, and ultimately Penelope is the one who winds up in the hospital costing Bloom his much needed sympathy points to ingratiate himself into her life.

However, somehow it works as she asks him for a ride back to her place and after a series of strange exchanges she's ill-equipped to handle (unaccustomed to having conversations with others), soon the two bond enough for Penelope to impulsively decide to tag along with the Blooms and Bang Bang-- whom she assumes are antique dealers-- on an overseas adventure by freighter to Greece.

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Working in a few other players to help set up a trap to ensnare the wealthy heiress into handing over a large amount of money, the men are stunned when Penlope is not only into the con but so gung-ho she begins taking risks and taking charge. And more importantly, she displays a new side of herself that reveals she's no stranger to making up beautiful lies which helped bolster her mood from an isolated childhood.

Filled with gorgeously breathtaking scenic shots as they hop from one country to the next involving as Johnson notes, "steamer ships across the Atlantic and trains through the Hungarian mountainside and ports in Greece and gritty alleyways in St. Petersburg," the film is bursting at the scenes with as he explains, "all sorts of highly romanticized stuff that has much more to do with an American's fantasy of Europe [than the actual Europe]".

Likewise, fantasy and imagination seem to be the film's driving force as the train utilized purposely recalls the 1940s, the ship echoes the 20s and despite its contemporary setting, The Brothers Bloom offers a liberating and tremendously spirited, picturesque, and dazzling view of characters and situations.

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Always presenting situations with a "wink" to the audience such as the homage to Wes Anderson, some great camera work that moves forwards and backwards quickly while panning from one extremely long shot to the right as a character is picked up and followed from the left-- it's a fluid, fast-paced work that exceeds Johnson's innovative high school film noir debut feature, Brick.

Viewers familiar with his previous movie will instantly recognize the cast as we see the brothers celebrate an early successful con with a film style "wrap party" and actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt are captured for a split second onscreen. And although again, Johnson is taking the established rules of a genre piece like the "con man" movie-- he gets extra points for carefully leading you down many paths throughout as initially we feel that one character may be in on the con, another could be truly running it, and someone else is unexpectedly being had, which consistently changes throughout.

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Admittedly, while it ends precisely in the manner I assumed it would (for one character in particular) as Johnson's clever screenplay inserts snippets of dialogue that pay off later in a multitude of unexpected ways-- it's the getting there that makes Brothers Bloom a true delight. However, a few of my film critic colleagues felt that the film had one final magic act too many in the closing twenty minutes. And partially they're right, since indeed once the film goes in a decisive direction after what you assume was possibly a good place to stop it, it takes a minute to see what purpose it will ultimately serve to continue the running time.

Yet contemplating it now again in retrospect-- I believe it served Johnson's thesis and made a fitting Russian novel like bookend of his own. Since at its heart and more than just a con movie, Bloom is a story about two brothers who made up beautiful stories of adventure and success just to keep themselves moving forward, empowered, and not looking back so the story had to continue until it finally stops by the decision of the author.

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A stunner of a picture-- it's one that additionally benefits from offering the two women truly great, offbeat roles (Kikuchi in particular makes a great mysterious Bang Bang who gives off much more spark with Ruffalo than Cato did for Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series to name another possible homage). And while Johnson's film on the surface may resemble a classic con picture or feel like it's in the mold of the Wes Anderson universe (back when his films were good and he penned them with Owen Wilson), it's a triumph that goes beyond homage and into blissfully entertaining originality.