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From left, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, and Mark Ruffalo in The Brothers Bloom.

2 out of 4 stars


The Brothers Bloom

  • Written and directed by Rian Johnson
  • Starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz
  • Classification: PG

The old carnival phrase "Close, but no cigar" comes to mind when watching The Brothers Bloom , a globetrotting heist film that starts off terrifically and then progressively deflates. Though it has witty visual jokes, complex plotting and literate dialogue, filmmaker Rian Johnson's sophomore feature gets lost in its own ingenuity. Finally, The Brothers Bloom fails to answer the fundamental question for any work of fiction: Why should we care?

In 2005, Johnson made a sit-up-and-take-notice debut feature film called Brick , starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a homage to The Maltese Falcon set in a contemporary California high school. With The Brothers Bloom , he has set his aim wider and higher. This time, he's offering a pastiche of an entire Hollywood decade, the thirties, though the time period is purportedly the present day.

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Like a capsule Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie, this story zips around the planet to various exotic destinations. There are lots of readily identified classic comedy elements here. Rachel Weisz plays that screwball-comedy staple, the runaway heiress. There's also a comic Laurel and Hardy team of two brothers, both wearing derby hats, black suits and white shirts, played by Adrien Brody as Bloom (he has no given name) and the apple-cheeked Mark Ruffalo, as his elder sibling, Stephen Bloom. Their criminal companion is a Harpo Marx-like mute sidekick, named Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) for her talent with explosives. Writer-director Johnson appears to owe a large debt to Wes Anderson here ( Rushmore , The Royal Tenenbaums ), in his offbeat humour and carefully framed, colourful visual style. As with Anderson's genre-parodying films, this is also a story about the power of storytelling. Allusions abound to various writers, from the brother's Joycean names to the script's references to Dostoevsky and Melville.

As we learn in the voiceover prologue (narrated by Ricky Jay), the two brothers are involved in a kind of literary game that started when they were foster children, shuffled from home to home because of their larcenous ways. Stephen plans each con like "a Russian novel," with his sad-sack younger brother as the hero. Though Stephen's a crook, he has an essentially benign agenda: The perfect con, he believes, is one where all the parties get what they want.

The one person not getting what he wants is his younger brother, Bloom, who is weary of the repetitive pattern of these scam-and-run jobs: For a change, he says, he wants to live "an unscripted life." But just when Bloom is determined to make the break for good, Stephen comes up with one last swindle.

The aim is to steal the fortune of a beautiful, eccentric heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz), who lives in a vast mansion and, when she drives about, crashes a succession of yellow Lamborghinis. To pass the time, she "collects hobbies." In a montage, we see her vast assortment of skills from tai chi to violin to rap DJ-ing, but Stephen correctly guesses she's bored stiff and lonely.

The first element in the Bloom brothers' con is to excite her interest by admitting that they're criminals. Then they invite her to join them on a trip to Prague to steal an antiquarian book. Like one of those Nigerian e-mail scams, though, the plan first involves Penelope putting up a large amount of cash.

Naturally, there are more complications than a centipede putting on pantyhose: Bloom falls in love with Penelope; English actor Robbie Coltrane pops up as a Hercule Poirot-like character known as the Curator; Maximilian Schell is a double-crossing, Fagan-like criminal mentor to the brothers; Bang Bang overdoes the explosives. With each new plot permutation, the question of who is doing what to whom becomes less fascinating.

Trapped within the limitations of Johnson's music-hall characterizations, naturalistic actors Brody and Ruffalo are emotionally straitjacketed. Brody looks almost as hangdog as he did in his Oscar-winning performance in The Pianist, and the normally laid-back Ruffalo pushes to suggest a grifter's chop-licking optimism. Weisz, full of gusty enthusiasm, brings the most energy to her performance in that familiar type of vintage screwball kookiness, "The Girl."

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In classic Hollywood screwball comedies, the characters' charm made the narrative nonsense permissible. In The Brothers Bloom , Johnson seems to have his foreground and background mixed up: The plot dominates and he errs in taking our interest in the characters for granted.

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