Rian Johnson, the writer-director of Brick, has made an ambitious sophomore film in The Brothers Bloom, a world-spanning romp starring Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo as con-man brothers trying to pull off their final, most difficult con.
You can add Rian Johnson to the list of directors who love the deception of magic. And you can add The Brothers Bloom to the list of ‘movies narrated by magician Ricky Jay.’ (It shares with Magnolia a rollicking opening and ambiguous coda.) We quickly get the psychological backstory of the two brothers in a sequence showing their first con, a clever scheme to get money to buy ice cream but also to unite the sensitive brother, Bloom, with a girl he fancied.
Cut to today, with the brothers closing yet another con and Bloom yet again unable to get with the girl because he is unsure whether her affection is genuine or just a part of the con. He wants out, which means to him a hammock and some booze in Montenegro.
His brother talks him into a final con on a beautiful and eccentric heiress (Rachel Weisz). When the brothers, Stephen and Bloom, and their mark, Penelope (the names are not-so-subtle references to James Joyce’s Ulysses) get on a steamship, the movie loses some steam. Still, it’s a hoot all the way through and features a show-stealing performance from Rinko Kikuchi as the whimsical explosives expert Bang Bang. (Kikuchi, before her Oscar-nominated turn in Babel, was known in Japan mostly as a comedienne.)
Rian Johnson did a brief Q&A afterwards then stayed outside the theater to talk to people. (Festival filmmakers could learn a lot by observing the confidence and openness with which he interacts with audiences.)
The great score is once again provided by his cousin Nathan Johnson. To inspire Nathan for Brick he pointed to Ennio Morricone and Tom Waits. Here, he pointed to Nino Rota and The Band.
Jim Clay, the production designer for Children of Men did the brilliant sets here (and on a modest budget). Most of the sets were locations. The final theater set wasn’t though, and it cost a large percentage of the production budget.
The Ulysses references were his way of trying to get at the myth of Daedalus, he said, but he didn’t want to go too far into it for fear of sounding like a pretentious jerk. (Beyond the name Stephen Dedalus, there was, of course, dialogue referring to wax melting on wings and that awesome fallen angel statue at Robbie Coltrane’s character’s apartment.)
He said some people were disappointed in how the ending of the film didn’t have the twist expected in the con-man genre, but they could always rent David Mamet’s House of Games. Count me as one of those people, and no, I don’t want to rent House of Games. I don’t like the ending to that movie either.
Although The Brothers Bloom strongly hinted that Stephen’s final con was actually centered on Bloom and not Penelope, there was never a moment where this was made clear. It was certainly not clear whether Penelope was an authentic character or all part of Stephen’s plan. If Stephen had to die (at the hands of Diamond Dog, who we disappointingly do not see at the climax), I think it is important for Bloom to witness this first hand rather than imagine it in flashback. It’s hard for me to go along with Bloom and Penelope heading off into the sunset when his brother and her friend is lying dead not far away. (Another flaw: I’m not sure that the false climax at the beach house was dramatically optimized to parallel the ending.)
Despite the lack of a tidy ending, I enjoyed the movie throughout. Rian Johnson is a very confident writer and director and exploder of genre and I look forward to the many original films to come from him.