THE BROTHERS BLOOM Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival

     September 12, 2008

Written by Monika Bartyzel

Eccentricity is a gleaming but hard to catch bubble in Hollywood. It floats through the world of film tantalizing the groups that adore quirk, and alienating those that do not. In most cases, the filmmakers who dabble in eccentricity do so completely – think Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, or even the darker David Lynch.

But Rian Johnson takes eccentricity to an entirely different and more accessible vein. His quirk rips classic and beloved themes out of the past and reimagines them on a new playing field, paying homage while also creating a vastly different experience. With Brick, he brought the language and air of hard-boiled crime to a modern California high school, juxtaposing the old with the new. And now there is his sophomore feature, The Brothers Bloom.

Inspired by films like The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Rian Johnson has jumped into the world of con men. But this isn’t the same world of Newman and Redford, or Martin and Caine. The charm of Depression-era con men is intermingled with the gleam of devilish scoundrels to create a timeless and easily lovable international adventure full of carefully plotted cons, shocking explosions, and retro kitsch.

Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) are orphaned brothers who learned early in life that they had a particular knack for deception. With the aid of Stephen’s carefully created flow charts, Bloom is the actor, making his brother’s written words come to life. But after many years of an existence carefully plotted by his brother, Bloom yearns for an “unwritten life” and wants out of the partnership.

Before he can completely escape the life, however, Stephen convinces Bloom to take on one last scam centered on a quirky New Jersey heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The plan is simple – Bloom will stir up a romance with Penelope, prey on her naiveté, tantalize her with images of international intrigue, and get her to bankroll some carefully schemed deals.

While it is all supposed to be an elaborate ruse, Bloom immediately begins to fall for Penelope. She’s not your ordinary rich girl; due to a series of unfortunate mistakes in her youth, Penelope is mostly a recluse. Aside from some reckless drives in her yellow Lamborghini, she spends her days alone in her estate. But she has never just wasted her time in solitude. Penelope has collected an insane roster of talents that range from the simplicity of making pinhole cameras from unlikely objects or playing ping pong to the complexity of juggling chainsaws and becoming fluent in 14 languages.

Bloom is mesmerized by Penelope’s charisma and charm, while the heiress is immediately addicted to idea of breaking out of her isolation and experiencing adventures, no matter how dangerous or pricey they might be. She falls perfectly into Stephen’s plan and along with the brothers’ silent and dangerous cohort Bang Bang (perfectly played by Rinko Kikuchi), they set off on an international adventure of danger and intrigue. I could relay the path of their adventures, which extend from Montenegro to Mexico, but just as Stephen’s chart is kept from our eager eyes, it’s better to go into this film blind, ready for the experience.

The Brothers Bloom is, by no means, a realistic adventure. From the timeless, classic suits and hats worn by the brothers to an early and strange glimpse at a feline amputee, the film swims in and out of reality – moments on Poirot-esque steamships with mysterious characters are juxtaposed with modern-day graffiti and Bang Bang’s high-tech pyromaniac ways. But where other films that saturate themselves in quirk let the eccentricity be the focus (like Brody’s last film, The Darjeeling Express), The Brothers Bloom thrives on intrigue and excitement.

Leading the pack is Weisz, who has created such a rich and lovable character that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a myriad of films with Penelope travelling the world on dangerous adventures, pulling out her many talents when needed. Coupled with Brody’s sweet and passive Bloom, they’re the perfect match – Bloom allowing Penelope to rip out of her shell, and Penelope showing Bloom the possibilities of unscripted life. Ruffalo does a fine job as the cocky and con-obsessed Stephen, but he’s often upstaged by the charming silence of Kikuchi’s Bang Bang. She balances Penelope’s exuberance with subtle, silent gestures, expressions, and effortless charisma and mystery.

In Johnson’s world, the intrigue is not only in Stephen’s plotted adventure, but the chill of an eerie spotlight and a strange character, the charm of hiding behind newspapers as chaos unfolds, the humor of special, distinct moments. There is a definite sense to the madness, and a dedication to the craft of storytelling.

Yes, this isn’t your recognizable world that’s been done to death on the big screen. If you comfort yourself in that familiar landscape and recoil against something different or strange, this isn’t the film for you. But if you enjoy a world that’s both real and imaginary, modern and timeless, give The Brothers Bloom a chance. It’s full of charm, grace, and that irresistible gleam of wacky fun.

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