Back in mid-July, I was invited to the post-production offices of The Brothers Bloom in Hollywood and after talking to the writer/director Rian Johnson, and watching about a half hour of footage, I simply couldn’t wait to see the flick. The film was originally set to open on October 24, in the heavily-competitive weekend alongside High School Musical 3 and Saw V. It was both good and bad news that this film was moved to December 19: good in that it was getting a prime release in Oscar-friendly December, but bad in that I’d have to wait even longer to check this out. However, along came the AFI Film Festival to the rescue with a few screenings of this film and a Q&A session with Johnson to boot and I just had to check one of them out. I sure am glad I did because this more than lived up to my high expectations of the film and is just a sheer delight to watch.
This film brings back the con-man genre back into the limelight and in such a spellbinding way. If memory serves me, the last “mainstream” con-man movie I recall seeing was the Nicolas Cage/Sam Rockwell flick Matchstick Men in 2003. Ed Burns’ Confidence showed up the year later and, while it was quite a fine film, it could hardly be considered “mainstream.” With The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson has brought us back to the glory days of the genre, harkening back such films as The Sting, but with a flair, style and some incredible characters all his own.
Aside from some of the darker moments towards the end, it will be incredibly hard to NOT be smiling throughout the duration of this 109-minute film. From its incredible opening sequence, taking us back to how the Brothers Bloom devised their first con in their formative years - which is also narrated exquisitely by magician extraordinaire/actor Ricky Jay – you’ll find it nearly impossible not to just smile and be drawn into the incredible world when we catch up with the brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) 20 years later. After that fabulous opening sequence, Bloom disappears after their latest con, sick of the life and wanting a “real” life instead of a role in his brother’s cons. Stephen, with the help of their literally silent partner/explosives expert Bang Bang (the outstanding Rinko Kiguchi) finds him in Montenegro, of all places, and proceeds to persuade him back for one more job, with the last mark being Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a lonely, quirky heir to a vast fortune with nothing to do except “collect hobbies.”
Johnson told us during that edit bay visit that he had set out to make a character-based con-man movie, which, before this film, was a task probably akin to creating an Uwe Boll movie that makes money. Instead of focusing the bulk of his efforts on snazzy Mamet-like twists and turns, the main reason you’re so drawn into this movie is the fantastic characters Johnson creates… and the harmonious marriage of inspired casting and spectacular performances makes it all the better. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody simply shine as Stephen and Bloom (it’s never really explained why he doesn’t have a surname) and, for two actors primarily known for their dramatic work, they prove to be incredibly funny in their own ways, with Ruffalo as the eccentric genius behind the cons and Bloom as the mostly-unwilling lead actor in them. I was starkly impressed with both of their performances, but particularly Ruffalo’s, since his performance carried most of the rapid-fire dialogue weight and, frankly, I’ve just never seen him in such a wonderfully light role and he pulled it off astonishingly well. While Rachel Weisz’s performance could possibly be construed as boring at times, in comparison to the brothers, it really isn’t because she brings such amazing nuances and depth to this character that you just can’t get with hardly any actress working today and she was a joy to watch as well. The last of the four main performers is probably the biggest scene-stealer of the year, that of Rinko Kiguchi as Bang Bang. She literally says only three words in the film, but her otherwise silent performance is fraught with such amazing comic timing and hilarious facial expressions that it gives a wonderful contrasting yin to the brothers’ yang.
While Johnson does focus this film on the characters, that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough story to go around, far from it, in fact. This film is actually a brilliant deconstruction of the entire genre, with plenty of the familiar motifs we’ve come to expect from such films. However, it’s Johnson’s keen ability to anticipate and play off of what seeds are already planted in our head about the genre and what clever bits he sprinkles in, that ultimately makes this film, at the end, in essence, a glorious remake of the entire genre. He’s aided also by an Oscar-worthy score from his cousin Nathan Johnson, who also scored Johnson’s first and incredibly-different film, Brick. The music is almost a character in and of itself, going above and beyond the call of duty to heighten our emotions, it practically commands them and is one of the many reasons that smile hardly left my face throughout the film. Although it doesn’t have a traditional con-man movie ending, and the ending is actually quite darker than I expected, I found myself even smiling at that because of the simple fact that, in the end, the audience is the real mark and Johnson is the illustrious magician that draws us into his elaborate world, throwing red herring after red herring at us, only to pull that ace out of his sleeve at the very end.
The Brothers Bloom is coming out at a particularly odd time, where dark (Knight, in particular) is golden and successful comedy seems to be almost entirely relegated to Team Apatow. What I really found amazing is that this film was written and directed by a filmmaker whose first film was so incredibly dark and acted by Oscar-nominated actors known for their dramatic chops … and was so immensely funny. With the clever writing and the twist on the twist ending, The Brothers Bloom shows that you can have your comedic cake and eat it with a twist of dark drama as well. The Brothers Bloom is an absolute gem of a movie. This is, by far, the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year.