We meet confidence men Stephen and Bloom as young orphans, in an inspired (if Magnolia-ccentric) opening sequence that lays out how they came into the con game. We catch up with them twenty years later, still playing the same roles; Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the mastermind, the planner, while Bloom (Adrien Brody) acts the roles but is perpetually unhappy and looking for a way out. They’ve been joined by a third—demolition artist “Bang Bang’ (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel). Stephen convinces Bloom to come in on one last big job (will there ever be a con or heist movie about the first big job?), in which the mark is Penelope Stamp (the radiant Rachel Weisz), a beautiful and ridiculously rich New Jersey shut-in.
It sounds like a pat set-up, but Johnson’s script is wickedly smart and comes at the story from all sorts of sideways angles, which keeps the audience on its toes. Most interestingly, it provides Johnson countless opportunities for broad laughs; I expected funny lines (and even the throwaways—“Is this a ’78 Caddy? Controversial choice.”—are good), but as a director, Johnson shows off a terrific knack for visual comedy. He always frames his shots for the maximum comedic effect (there are as many great background gags as in a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie), and the fast cuts are perfectly timed; in the scene, for example, where Penelope explains to Bloom that she “collects hobbies” and he asks if any of them are interesting, we start laughing in the pause before the montage of her playing ping-pong and juggling and break-dancing, primarily because we’re so in tune with the film, and then we laugh again at the montage itself.
But he doesn’t just play for laughs, either. There are occasional twinges of lush romanticism (as in the lovely scene where Penelope and Bloom dance to “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”), and the script takes the brother dynamic seriously (sometimes heartbreakingly so). Johnson also has a lot of fun with the conventions of the caper movie—his long con is air-tight, if a little too drawn out, which becomes a bit of a problem in the third act.
Indeed, it is a disappointment to report that The Brothers Bloom doesn’t end quite as strongly as it begins. An important scene of confession between Bloom and Penelope ends before we have a chance to gauge her reaction—Johnson (or his editor) make the crucial mistake of presuming that we’re more interested in what he’s feeling than in what she is. Shortly thereafter, it careens into the expected series of plot twists and double-crosses, and while they’re certainly executed gracefully, they’re expected all the same. And they have the same result as these sorts of piled-on turns often do: we stop being emotionally invested in the story, because it’s all turning out to be a put-on anyway. That said, once the twists are done, the final sequence has a genuine (and unexpected) bit of genuine and effective emotion.
Weisz is absolutely warm and winning in what amounts to the leading role; she swings effortlessly from giddy enthusiasm to heartbreaking pathos (her deliberate reaction early in the film to Brody telling her she looks nice is a perfect little moment, an indulgence that this viewer was thankful for). Brody is an actor that I’ve never been particularly enamored of (he’s never bad, but he’s always just kind of there); his work here is good and occasionally inspired. Ruffalo is terrific; this is a perfect vehicle for his rakish, loopy charm, and he has a great time chewing on some whiz-bang dialogue (“I don’t like to simplistically vilify an entire country, but Mexico’s a horrible place”). Kikuchi says, I believe, one word of English (and not much more than that in any language), but she has a marvelous presence, and her skill for pantomime is legitimately reminiscent of Chaplin or Harpo Marx.
The tight close-ups and flashy dolleys of Steve Yedlin’s photography keep things moving nicely, as does Gabriel Wrye’s smooth editing and Nathan Johnson’s brassy score. But ultimately, it’s Johnson’s show. This is his coming-out party as a director, exciting proof that Brick was no fluke. He’s a born filmmaker—even if he hasn’t quite figured out how to avoid the traps of this picture’s genre.
"The Brothers Bloom" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 12th.