The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on May 27, 2009 @

The Brothers Bloom is a movie about con men that winds up conning itself.

It is one of those films that should be better than it is. The Brothers Bloom has a first-rate cast, a good basic plot, and great locales.

But its writer/director Rian Johnson buries these assets with self-conscious, mannered posing that twists his promising creation into a movie pretzel. Doughy and gnarly.

Near the beginning when Johnson introduces a three-legged cat and two precocious kids in black hats, we know the whimsy is going to be strained and precious.

The Brothers Bloom is the tale of two orphaned con men brothers. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), the older, is a concocter of con game stories; Bloom (Adrien Brody), the younger, goes along as a would-be character in the stories, because he has no real life of his own.

Stephen cajoles his brother into one final score, conning an heiress in New Jersey, the basically shut-in Penelope (Rachel Weisz).

Rachel Weisz brings engaging charm to her eccentric character. She reminds me of Stockard Channing in The Fortune (1975), who held together the box office dud with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.

Most of the time, Weisz rises above the writer/director's sensibility, but she is given an awful speech about a constipated soul that even Bette Davis, who had one, couldn't save. Even Weisz can't transcend callow writing.

Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody aren't Beatty and Nicholson. I'm not sure whether Mark Ruffalo is miscast as the older dissembler Stephen, or that his patented dewy-eyed, sappy expression actually helps the character's cons.

Brody is effective as the troubled, put-upon brother Bloom, who is in desperate search of an unscripted life.

Their accomplice Bang Bang, Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, 2006), is Harpo gone Asian. Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell add their considerable talent to the cast. In an eye patch and beard Schell is nearly unrecognizable.

The locations make an evocative travelogue -- Athens, Prague, Mexico, St. Petersberg, and of course New Jersey. But I know New Jersey; it's not New Jersey. "New Jersey" actually was shot abroad. What a con.

Johnson may have sold the idea of The Brothers Bloom as House of Games meets Roadrunner. But Johnson is no David Mamet or Chuck Jones. He's more David Upchuck.

Johnson is all over the place, and he squanders a viable premise. Johnson wants to be David Mamet. He even uses Mamet-veteran Ricky Jay as his narrator. But Johnson isn't even in the same game as Mamet.

In his first film Brick (2006), Johnson stuck terrific young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the mortar of his self-indulgence.

Directors can be self-conscious and self-indulgent. Certainly Peckinpah, Altman, Singer, and Tarantino at times are self-conscious, but their movies still have potent payoffs.

Johnson uses Wes Anderson-like shtik. He's a movie geek like Quentin Tarantino, but where Tarantino is sharp and incisive, Johnson is distended and redundant.

The Brothers Bloom was scheduled to be released last December, but was delayed. There are a couple of scenes -- which may have been truncated -- that leave gaps in the story. And Johnson has not earned suspension of disbelief to leave such gaps.

The Brothers Bloom jerks us around without end. The cons and twists pile up like debris. If The Brothers Bloom had one more twist I would have screamed. But I wouldn't have been heard amidst the explosions every other scene.

Johnson loves to blow things up -- such as plot and credibility.

Like being punched in the arm, one eventually becomes numb to the endless twists. By the final twist, it's hard to care.

The cork is popped, but the champagne is flat.

The Brothers Bloom is flat champagne in a dribble glass.

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