Long awaited in the wake of his 2005 debut Brick, Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom is a magic trick of a film; the second it's over, you want to see it again so you can try to catch how you were tricked, but you also want to see it again so you can return to the joy and wonder of being wrapped up in the nimble, deck-shuffling hands of a born showman. Watching it at first, some of The Brothers Bloom's creative and thematic elements seem like they're on loan from Paul Thomas Anderson (opening narration by Ricky Jay, pop-whiz-bang camera work, the troubled-but-tender relationship between the two brothers) while others feel as if they've been cribbed from Wes Anderson (deadpan confessions, whimsical set design, a parallel-universe setting where people still travel to Europe by steamship). The truth is, as much as The Brothers Bloom may feel like it's cribbing from other films at first, this is Rian Johnson's movie, and even if my more dreary and discerning critical faculties told me the final act goes on, perhaps, a beat too long, my inner moviegoer was sitting bolt upright, smiling, bright-eyed and carried away.
Brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody) have grown up on the make, in a world of, as Jay's stage-setting narration puts it, "... grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall. ..." Stephen builds cons; Bloom gets close to the marks. Stephen's work on their scams is a weird, lucrative form of self-expression; as Bloom puts it, "My brother writes cons the way Russians write novels. ..." Bloom's work on their schemes is a weird, lucrative form of self-loathing; Bloom learns early on that playing a part means never having to be yourself, that he, when " ... being as he wasn't, could be as he wished to be." Stephen wants more. Bloom wants out.
In any con game film, we expect to hear the phrase " ... one last job," just as we expect to hear a magician cry out " ... nothing up my sleeves." Much like a sleight-of-hand artist's stage gestures, Johnson's work here is broad and bold and sweeping, all the better to hide the careful planning, tight-sprung engineering and thoughtfully considered execution behind the distractions and delights. Along with their comrade-in-cons Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), an enigmatic hipster with a flair for explosions, the brothers find one last target, a lonely heiress named Penelope Stamp, played by Rachel Weisz; while Bloom and Stephen and Bang Bang commit several felonies and misdemeanors in the course of The Brothers Bloom, it's nothing compared to the act of grand (in every sense of the word) larceny Weisz commits in stealing the film. Penelope's weird and unique, but she's also real and sincere; a montage where Penelope demonstrates how she, in her words, 'collects hobbies' is a minor miracle of comedy that also speaks to a character's lonely heart.
Stephen's concocted a plan to bilk Penelope out of her inheritance, which requires Bloom to get close to her; Bloom, as we expect, gets too close; later, we understand how Stephen may have expected that, too. As Stephen, Ruffalo gets to play a rumpled, roguish conniver, eyes twinkling as they catch a glimpse of the next chance to trick and take; Brody's hangdog looks and deliberate manner mesh perfectly with Bloom's melancholy manipulations. Kikuchi's stylish, silent Bang Bang provides cool, crisp comic relief that somehow still works within the film's context of stakes and risks. In fact, you could say that all of The Brothers Bloom walks a careful, closely-watched line where there's peril and possibility enough to keep the film moving forward and keep us in suspense, even as the tone still feels light-footed and bright.
Some naysayers deride Brick, Johnson's first film, as a gimmick masquerading as a movie; I'm of the opinion they're wrong, but that's another story. The Brothers Bloom demonstrates, however you may feel about Brick, that Johnson's a real storyteller, much like his protagonist antiheroes here; you can feel here how much he loves to make us ask 'What happens next?' and how well he knows that having a good answer to that question matters. The Brothers Bloom is about a con, but it's also about storytelling -- and how all storytelling is, in its way, a con.The production design, costumes and music in The Brothers Bloom are all top-notch, but they never get in the way of the movie; the games and gags in it don't detract from the film's real meaning or the connection between the characters. Bloom says he doesn't want to live "an unwritten life"; he -- and we -- are told "There's no such thing as an unwritten life, just a badly-written one." The Brothers Bloom has immediate, kicky pleasures and laughs, but it also sneaks up on you with how much Bloom and Stephen care for each other, and how much Penelope and Bloom find their true selves through a series of deceptions. The Brothers Bloom may look slight, but as the intricate tricks and twists of it unfold, all of the cunning and cons in it reveal a sincere, beating heart behind the flash and fun.