by Michael Joshua Rowin
The Brothers Bloom
Dir. Rian Johnson, U.S., Summit
The Brothers Bloom immediately challenges its audience to not think of Wes Anderson: Rian Johnson’s sophomore feature (after Brick) barrels out of the gate with a kinetic, Ricky Jay–narrated montage describing the formative years of a pair of young siblings seemingly hatched into the world as fully formed con artists complete with snazzy, old-fashioned dark suits and top hats. Out of all the young American directors who’ve made household names for themselves in the past decade, Anderson has been the strongest influence on contemporary cinema and television, from the patented parenthetical flashbacks and asides that have become the go-to “surprise” jokes of smart-aleck faves Arrested Development and The Family Guy, to the thrift-store-disaster-as-uniform costuming (better known as “geek chic”) so successfully pilfered by watered-down wannabes Napoleon Dynamite and Juno. And Anderson casts an enormous shadow on The Brothers Bloom, with its opening uncannily reminiscent of that of The Royal Tenenbaums, brimming with deadpan line deliveries, storybook preciousness, and a nostalgia for an edenic youth or childlike state that’s since been disillusioned into the melancholia of walking wounded adulthood.
Judged by this beginning, The Brothers Bloom appears to be just another derivative of a supposedly more sincere auteur’s signature style, one that seems to bring out in its imitators only the superficial and fashion-oriented. But then something happens—The Brothers Bloom displays a narrative and visual wit all its own. After the credits we’re introduced to the brothers grown up: sullen Bloom (Adrien Brody, not far removed from his role in The Darjeeling Limited) still hasn’t gotten over the abandonment of his own dreams and desires in favor of the ersatz ones of his jocular brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), though both are reintroduced putting the finishing touches on a perfectly executed con in the present day. While Johnson uses enough freeze frames and quickly sketched minor characters to fill the next several Anderson films (later he employs illustrations that dissolve into establishing shots, as well as chapter titles in the style of Stephen’s diagrams outlining his devious plans), he also displays a keen, original sense of the absurd. One memorable scene has Bloom, depressed and unable to share in a celebration of the duo’s latest success, signal to Stephen by using a gesture mimicking a gun to the head. We then realize what this odd motion refers to when Johnson cuts to Bloom atop a roof, sitting in front of graffiti art portraying a man about to commit suicide by handgun. Bloom blocks out the face of the man so it appears as though he’s the one shooting himself, and the door Stephen slams upon his arrival enacts the sound of a gunshot.
The superimposition of reality onto fantasy and vice versa quickly emerges as the film’s comedy mainline. Where Brick’s pseudo-tough guy patois and high school-set noir came across as contrived exercises in empty style, here he’s found a worthy theme—the confidence game as metaphor for the illusions on which we build the stories of our lives—to fuel his penchant for self-conscious dialogue. Bloom, for instance, tells Stephen he’s quitting the con game to seek out an existence beyond the bounds of scripted fakery, but Stephen’s heard the threat so many times before that he begins feeding Bloom his lines. “I just want an—” Bloom exasperatingly tells him, “Unwritten life,” Stephen prompts. “Unwritten life,” Bloom unwittingly repeats.
And yet at times Johnson overplays his hand. For every breezy demonstration of visual and verbal flare there are about a half-dozen moments of overcalculated whimsy: camels drinking from whiskey flasks, a millionaire recluse mastering an encyclopedia of obscure hobbies, a near-mute Asian sidekick (Rinko Kikuchi) blowing up Barbie dolls with perverse relish (why is it that so many of these types of films have minority characters meant to be seen and not heard?). Like much recent moviemaking inspired by Anderson, it’s all “random,” all cosmetic baubles under the guise of pure imagination. These contemporary directors seem to have misinterpreted Godard’s dictum that “One should put everything into a film” and Truffaut’s suggestion of “Four ideas per minute.” Those were daring game plans well earned by master storytellers; a surfeit of freewheeling magical realist kitsch only makes Johnson’s tall tale a wearying muddle. The fun of a con movie should be in the Rube Goldberg-like set-up, but The Brothers Bloom is so busy crashing yellow Lamborghinis and caricaturing shotgun-wielding Belgians that it can’t even spin a coherent yarn: during both of the film’s major globe-trotting, crane shot-punctuated scores—something to do with book smuggling and Russian mobsters—I found myself clueless as to what was going on.
Incredibly, despite such gaping problems, Johnson sticks to and develops his film’s strong central idea. The convoluted and crowded story negates any sort of thrill we could get from watching a con unfold, and no chemistry results when Bloom falls for Penelope (Rachel Weisz, sweet but an afterthought), the beautiful mark of the brothers’ final fraud—but the general atmosphere of trickery is enough to expound upon the parallels between swindle and fiction, between the stories con artists construct so that “each party gets what he wants,” as Stephen puts it, and the stories creative artists construct to allow both themselves and their audiences to live another life. Penelope attempts to escape her rich widow boredom through Stephen’s brilliant narratives, while Bloom tries to break free of the story structures imposed by his dream-weaving line of work; the uncertain emotional and spiritual value of invented roles and “lies that tell the truth” (Penelope’s phrase for her pinhole camera art) is questioned in a virtuoso ending that, rather than settling for the pat triumph of “authenticity,” enacts a tragedy in an abandoned theater, spotlight and all, that insists on the unresolved confusion of orchestration and improvisation.
The irony in all this is that Johnson treats his characters and their failed quest for veracity as less important than a trend-hopping obsequiousness to what might be called the Andersonesque. Pertinent tips of the hat do well to place the film within a tradition: a ship called the S.S. Fidele refers to Melville’s bizarre, sui generis survey of American-style chicanery, The Confidence-Man, while the use of Nino Rota’s theme to Amarcord associates the brothers with Fellini’s duplicitous characters as well as the Italian maestro’s continual concern with the interplay of artifice and truth. But whenever it deviates from its point, forsaking its central commentary to parade the meaninglessly oddball, The Brothers Bloom evaporates. Johnson could have given each party what it wanted by indulging his cinematic flamboyance while providing audiences with a philosophical twist on the grifter subgenre; the result is instead a film whose intriguing theme is too frequently betrayed by a hand-me-down style.