Rachel Weisz as Penelope Stamp
Adrien Brody as Bloom
Mark Ruffalo as Stephen
Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang
Robbie Coltrane as The Curator
Nora Zehetner as Rose
Maximilian Schell as Diamond Dog
Noah Segan as The Duke
Andy Nyman as Charleston
Zachary Gordon as Young Bloom
Directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson’s quizzical sophomore effort shows there’s a true filmmaking force at work here; open-minded film enthusiasts should appreciate his charming and unique approach to the heist comedy.
The Brothers Bloom, Stephen the older (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom the younger (Adrien Brody), have been professional conmen for 25 years, following Stephen’s elaborate plans for stealing money from unwitting marks. Bloom is ready to get out of the business when Stephen talks him into one last con, to steal money from an eccentric heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), who proves to be shrewder than the brothers expected, exacerbated by Bloom falling in love with her.
Rian Johnson’s first movie “Brick” was an inventive film with a great premise that suffered slightly from its miniscule budget, though his writing and creative vision showed a lot of promise. Now with “The Brothers Bloom,” we can see what Johnson can do with a real budget and experienced actors, and it’s an impressive mix of genres that’s as original and distinctive as it is strange.
Narrated by Ricky Jay, the film’s prologue introduces the Bloom Brothers as kids when they first learn the art of devising cons around Stephen’s complex planning. 25 years later, younger brother Bloom wants out and be free to live his own life, having spent most of his life being the hero of his brothers’ complex storytelling. He has almost succeeded in his escape before Stephen pulls him back into one more con. Their target is Penelope, a millionaire shut-in who lives in a mansion by herself, and she certainly intrigues Bloom, especially when she agrees to tag along on the brothers’ latest adventure. Penelope may be slightly nutty, but she’s smarter than they think, and as she gets slightly over-enthusiastic about being a part of their “antique smuggling operation,” the brothers are forced to improvise and change their plans as her unpredictable nature throws them off track.
While the plot might seem like it was borrowed directly from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with numerous crosses and double-crosses, the tone and look of this film goes a long way to differentiate it. Once again, Johnson references beloved classic films, taken even further in the distinct way the cast delivers his sharp dialogue, to the way the brothers dress in suits, ties and bowler hats, as if they’re the denizens of old movies who find themselves trapped in the modern world. It may be hard for Johnson to deflect comparisons to Wes Anderson’s recent work, since so much of this story takes place on ships and trains, and it maintains a similarly quirky feel. Probably inspired by the same old movies as Anderson, Johnson creates a better-realized version of what Anderson might have been trying to do with his last few films.
Anyone who saw “Brick” knows that Johnson excels in creating great female characters, and this is no exception as the two women tend to overshadow the title characters. The title is somewhat of a red herring, because Rachel Weisz’s Penelope tends to steal the show, whether she’s crashing her bright yellow Lamborghini into things or showing off her skills at “collecting hobbies” in a hilarious montage. Penelope may be strange and enigmatic, but Bang Bang, the brothers’ explosives expert played by Rinko Kikuchi from “Babel,” may be one of the coolest film characters we’ve seen in a long time. Barely saying a single word, she steals almost every scene by bringing levity to situations with a Chaplin-like presence. There’s little question these two actresses make the movie, and it’s hard not to be won over by the awkward romance between Penelope and Adrien Brody’s brooding anti-hero, handled in a way that also differentiates the film from everything else out there. Amidst the quartet’s caper, the film explores interesting themes about authoring your own fate, something Bloom desperately seeks while continuing to play a character in Stephen’s intricate machinations, but always unsure of his decisions are ever his own.
Stephen Bloom isn’t the most interesting character Ruffalo has played, constantly straddling the line between good and bad so you never can completely like him even though he has a few defining moments later in the film. There are also a few too many odd satellite characters like Robbie Coltrane as the Belgian museum curator and Maximilian Schell as the mysterious Diamond Dog, a Fagin-like character who taught the boys everything they know before they parted ways. They may be necessary for the brother’s backstory, but they’re so outlandish, they might lose some viewers.
The globe-traversing film hits a peak in terms of scope when the quartet land in Prague to steal a valuable book from a high-security museum, a sequence that really captures the beauty of the old city like few filmmakers have done with a couple of shots that will leave you wondering how Johnson pulled them off.
That said, it’s hard not to feel like the movie peaks too early and starts to outlive its welcome as it throws a few too many twists and cons at the viewer, the last act casually discarding the charm and humor that made the earlier movie so much fun. Fortunately, it does eventually recover, never apologizing for going off on unexpected tangents. It’s a clever movie that may require some patience to fully appreciate what Johnson was going for, but it does pay off many times over, especially when throwaway lines earlier in the movie are resolved in the last act.
The Bottom Line:
There have been a number of good and great con movies over the years, though it’s such a difficult genre to master, it’s refreshing when a filmmaker like Rian Johnson takes a decidedly different approach by combining modern sensibilities with the best elements of classic films.
The Brothers Bloom opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, May 15, with plans for expansion on May 29.