Friday, May 22, 2009
The Brothers Bloom
“I started with the notion of doing a character-based con movie, where the payoff at the end was an emotional one,” said writer-director Rian Johnson at a recent screening of The Brothers Bloom in New York. “The biggest challenge was making you care about the characters.”
It’s a nice idea, but the strain shows. Too slow in spots for a caper and too shallow in its too-frequent philosophizing for a deep-dish art house film, The Brothers Bloom tries so hard to be so many things that it feels like nothing at all. For all its self-consciously artful construction, it breaks up and floats away the moment it’s over, like a dandelion gone to seed in a strong gust of wind.
A story about telling stories, as the script keeps reminding us, Bloom is about two brothers who split a name between them. Orphaned as kids, they learn early on how to take care of each other and game everyone else. Stephen (a raffish Mark Ruffalo) is the mastermind, whose notebooks contain the plans for years’ worth of elaborate cons. Bloom (a broody Adrien Brody) is the younger brother who goes along to get along. He hates playing parts in his brother’s scripts, but he’s too depressed to make a life for himself.
When we first see the brothers, they’re kids who have already assumed the anachronistic uniforms they maintain throughout the movie: black-and-white clothes and black bowler hats. These early sequences, which feature amateurish child actors mouthing dialogue that’s meant to be witty and world-weary, reminded me of Brick (2005), Johnson’s first feature, a cult favorite that plays like a teenage Bugsy Malone.
Like Brick, Bloom loads up on stylistic quirks like a kid piling on Mom’s jewelry, invoking the look and feel of a lot of classic film genres. Its best moments are sheer nonsense or non sequiturs, like a Hunter Thompson-esque bit where a shambling, vaguely menacing character played by Robbie Coltrane shoots huge holes through his own front door when the brothers knock, then opens what’s left as if nothing had happened. (“I’ve been drinkin’,” he says, by way of apology.)
Johnson may have tried to make his characters likeable, but he made each such a collection of oddities that the burden rests even more squarely than usual on the actors to bring them to life. Ruffalo comes the closest, looking genuinely pained, amused, or concerned as needed while pulling off a raffish elegance. His bemused style of cool rhymes with the tough-tootsie pizzazz of his wordless sidekick, Bang Bang (the mesmerizing Rinko Kikuchi, who played a very different kind of silent girl in Babel.)
But Brody, who plays the main character, is more of a black hole than a star. His dour, one-note performance weighs down this picaresque movie like the lead on a fishhook.
As Bloom’s love interest, the beautiful, rich, and improbably cloistered Penelope, Rachel Weisz makes an inarticulate ditz seem lovable, sexy, and oddly courageous, but even she can’t strike any sparks with Brody’s sad-sack Bloom. One of Penelope’s many quirks is that she gets sexually excited by lightning, and she gets a lot more worked up by a summer storm than she ever does by Bloom.
A lot of thought and talent clearly went into making this forgettable film. Production designer Jim Clay, who also worked on Brick, found and dressed some extravagantly showy settings, most of them in old European cities like Belgrade and Prague that amplify the script’s feel of a past-haunted present. The cinematography is beautiful too, featuring lots of saturated blues, greens and grays.
But Johnson keeps poking holes in his own balloon. The shallow-dish philosophizing draws too much attention to itself: It’s clear he wants to say something about living an authentic life, but what exactly? The only genuinely thought-provoking and insightful comment – “a photograph is like a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know” – is a ripoff, an uncredited Diane Arbus quote.
The soundtrack doesn’t quite jibe either. Two familiar and lovely songs from the ‘70s – one by Bob Dylan and another by Cat Stevens – stick out from a mostly undistinguished folk-rocky soundtrack by Johnson’s cousin, Nathan Johnson, who also scored Brick. (“We’ve been making movies together since we were ten,” Johnson said at the New York screening, conjuring an image of a brothers Bloom-style collaboration.)
What stayed with me longest are the deadpan visual jokes that play out now and then in the distance, tasty little bits silhouetted against the adolescent hijinks at the center of the screen. But they seemed to belong to another story altogether, as if the ghost of Buster Keaton were filming a genuinely inventive comedy on the set of this strenuous misfire.