Movies You May Have Missed: The Brothers Bloom

When I was about ten years old, I saw a movie called The Sting and ever since then, I have loved movies about the con.  The fix, the hustle, the grift, whatever you want to call it, the con movie is one of the most enjoyable genres in cinema.  The characters are clever and rather then using technology or weaponry, the con man relies strictly on charm and good old fashioned manipulation to get what they want.  They build identities, write scripts and make intricate plans built entirely on the premise of creating a false reality for their marks.  Like magicians, the confidence man makes illusion into a reality, blurring the line between what is real and what is all part of the plan.  But what makes a con movie really great is when they manage to fool us into believing they were ever on our side.  I suppose that is why my favorite movie of 2009 was an undiscovered little gem called The Brothers Bloom, a movie about two con men who are so good, they distort reality for their mark, the audience and each other.

“As far as con man stories go, I think I’ve heard them all.  Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall.  But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome, twould be that of Penelope, and of the brothers Bloom.”

In this clever opening to a clever tale, the brothers Bloom develop the design that dictates the rest of their lives.  Stephen, the storyteller, constructs Rube Goldberg-ian fairy tales that leave his pockets lined, the mark with a cathartic adventure, but most importantly allow Bloom the chance to experience life as the man he wishes he was.

Twenty-five years later, the brothers have become celebrated con men working in Berlin.  Joined by Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) constructs cons “the way dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and imbedded symbolism” while Bloom (Adrian Brody) acts them out.  For Stephen, the true joy is the complication of telling a compelling story and making Bloom the hero of that story.  But Bloom feels crippled by the life of a con man.  Sure, its exciting in the moment.  But just like that day so many years ago, he feels cheated when the realization that he is just living the lie Stephen allows him to tell himself brings him crashing back to reality.  Unable to separate himself from the characters Stephen has created for him, Bloom decides to give up the game for an “unwritten life.”

Bloom runs away to Montenegro where, three months later, Stephen buys him lunch and lays out his plans for one last con.  Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) is a rich and eccentric shut-in with a vast fortune.  Stephen wants to send her on a grand adventure and perhaps give Bloom what he’s always wanted. Introducing himself to Penelope by smashing headfirst into her Lamborghini on a bike, he laments that there is no better way into a mark’s sympathies then having you first conversation from a hospital bed they put you in.  Penelope collects hobbies, but unlike Bloom who uses his unique assortment of skills for gain, she does it out of interest in discovery.  When describing her love of photography, she says “a photograph is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you, the less you know.”  As Bloom gets to know Penelope, he discovers in her a kindred spirit, a person who was trapped in a life they never wanted.  Unlike himself, however, she finds beauty and hope in the fantasy she has created for herself.

This is when the reality that she is the mark in one of Stephens schemes brings him back to reality.  Luckily, Penelope has not only taken the bait, believing that Stephen and Bloom are international antique dealers, but has taken it upon herself to join them on their trek to Greece, just as Stephen planned.  Along the way Stephen sets his plan into motion, leaking to Penelope that they are, in fact, smugglers which only excites her more as she has spent her whole life dreaming of the adventure and excitement that comes with the lifestyle she imagines they must lead.  The foursome make their way to Prague, praying on Penelope’s bank account, excitement and sympathies, putting her on an adventure to rescue a book from a secret catacomb in order to return it to its rightful owner.  But as Bloom finds himself falling in love with their mark, he also finds himself questioning whether or not he can follow through on their plans.

Although, on its cover, The Brothers Bloom is a romantic comedy nestled in the deceptive suit of the con film, the romance is actually between Stephen and Bloom.  While Bloom struggles to free himself from the shackles of the con man life, Stephen fights to keep him in, hoping that he may finally be able to give his brother the happiness he has always wanted for him.  Stephen has an inexhaustible gift for creating illusion, but his ultimate goal is making that illusion a reality for his brother.  In his heart, he believes that if Bloom goes and lives his “unwritten life,” he will never truly find happiness because it will never be as grand as the life Stephen can design for him.  The trick of it is designing a life that Bloom can grow into and the journey that will get him there and as long as Stephen fails to give that to Bloom, he will never truly be satisfied.

The casting on this film was perfect.  As Bloom, Brody is the perfect conflicted anti-hero.  His long features register the torment of a man who has spent entire life living a lie and his intelligence makes him convincingly deep.  His charm lies in his wounded sadness and nobody does that better then Brody.  As Stephen, Mark Ruffalo is all bravado and winking sincerity.  He is a man excited by the concept of making life more fantastic and Ruffalo brings the charisma of the character to life.  His warmth, excitement and honesty emanate from the screen, even as he lies to your face.  As Penelope, Rachel Weisz manages to bring the best in all of us to the screen.  The character presents some challenges in that Penelope is a contradiction.  She knows everything and yet has experienced nothing.  Because of this, she is painfully aware of reality while completely swept away by the experience.  In one moment, Bloom says to Penelope “This is not an adventure story.”  Penelope’s face lights up as she excitedly replies “What are you talking about?  It totally is!”  The innocent enthusiasm Weisz brings to the part makes the character shine.  As Bang-Bang, Rinko Kikuchi creates the kind of character I always tend to love the most.  She is absolutely brilliant.  Funny, smart and silent, Bang-Bang is omnipotent character of this movie.  As Stephen spies on Penelope from the bushes, Bang-Bang produces a saw to cut off the branch obstructing his view.  She is a master of all things and sees everything coming before it happens.  In that way, she is perfect for Stephen.  Kikuchi brings a wonderful sense of humor and joy to a role without dialogue.  She is adorable, deadly and her charm in the part is undeniable.

The true hero of the Brothers Bloom is its writer/director Rian Johnson.  A lot of people were expecting his second feature to follow in the moody vein of his first film Brick, the noir-infused story of young man trying to solve a murder at his high school.  I, for one, am glad it didn’t.  The Brothers Bloom shows Johnson to be more then a one trick pony.  His script crackles with clever and wry dialogue, fantastical twists, and intricate narrative.  The screen comes to life with inventive and stylistic visuals.  In this film, Johnson creates a beautifully absurdist world in which characters wear different costumes for every occasion.  He makes every location feel timelessly beautiful by showing it the way Penelope sees it, like an idealist version of what it could be.  Like Stephen, Johnson seems to take extreme joy in taking us on an adventure that gives us everything we want. Johnson also brings back his Brick composer Nathan Johnson who turns in a score with all the charm and splashy effect of the film itself.  It should be of little surprise that the score to The Brothers Bloom can often be heard blaring from my car stereo.  Jazzy trumpet riffs, energetic guitars and melancholy pianos made this score one of the best of 2009.

The Brothers Bloom was widely overlooked by the filmgoing public when it was released in May of 2009.  Since then, I have made an effort to share this joy of a movie with everyone I could.  Some have laughed, some have cried (I’m looking at you Christy), but all have come away feeling better for having seen it.  Like the title characters, the movie will trick and confuse you, making you wonder where the con ends and reality begins and by the time Stephen brings his “perfect con” to a close, you will find that the film has done so as well in a heartfelt finale that will leave you sad and hopeful in the best of ways. With smart dialogue, clever construction and winning spirit, The Brothers Bloom a must-see movie you may have missed.

~ by Andrew Craig on August 30, 2011.

2 Responses to “Movies You May Have Missed: The Brothers Bloom”

  1. Oh man, the last review of yours I read was ” the Fall”, and now “The brother’s bloom.” Both films so good that I own them and since I own about 4 movies, that is saying something. My love for Adrien Brody is no secret, but I really loved him in this. And actually Rachel Weisz was like a revelation to me. I always liked her, but she was phenomenal in this. This is such an eloquent comment…

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