‘The Brothers Bloom‘ burst from the writer/director of the exceptional, and achingly indie ‘Brick’, Rian Johnson- who didn’t so much become the next rising thing on the back of that film’s Sundance festival win and subsequent accolades back in 2005 as announce himself as the variously heralded luminary of indie film-making. And if ever there was an advert for the difficulty of sophomoric offerings in the light of unmitigated debut success, it is ‘The Brothers Bloom’: already somewhat of a debacle thanks to an uninspiring critical reception in the US, and the (probably consequent) delayed UK release date, the film fails to live up to over-bearing weight of expectation that has written too many artistic headstones already.
Not only that, ‘The Brothers Bloom’ is about as radical a departure from the high-school grungey noir-flick as one could reasonably imagine – it is an eccentric comedy in a Gilliam-lite/Wes Anderson mould without the modesty of under-appreciated, or not quite discovered acting talent or a restricted budget to make its high-points all the more enchanting. Instead, Johnson takes to the screen with an A-List cast, lead by Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, the kind of inflated budget we have come to expect from insanely well-thought-of second-feature directing talents and a more artsy creative manifesto. Shame Johnson failed to recognise that it was the charm of ‘Brick’ and its delicate intricacies that made it such a break-out success.
But, the film definitely does deserve a chance – there are elements to like if you can suspend the compulsion to compare it to ‘Brick’- and there are a number of reasons why the DVD and Blu-Ray release is worth revisiting.
Before I watched it, and while flicking through the various pre-release marketing materials I could get my hands on I couldn’t help likening ‘The Brothers Bloom’ to a foreign cousin of films like ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’, ‘Matchstick Men’ and ‘Confidence’ (also starring Rachel Weisz as it happens). On the strength of the synopses offered I also began to suspect that the film would end up with the same twist as each of those films.
Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play the titular con-men brothers, orphaned and bounced from foster home to foster home for bad behaviour and elder brother Stephen’s (Ruffalo) penchant for conning people and roping in his kid brother to help. All grown up, and a professional con-man, younger brother Bloom (Brody) decides he is tired of being manipulated by his brother, and flees to Montenegro to retire from the trade. Naturally, Stephen manages to persuade him to sign up for one last job: tricking an eccentric millionairess played by Rachel Weisz.
My concern, which wasn’t helped by that synopsis at all, was that Weisz’s character would end up being the real trickster, playing the Brothers off and at their own game simultaneously. Of course, presumption is the sneaky brother of ignorance, and the actual twist of the plot was far more complex and far more engaging.
That story-line, and the acting performances ensure that the film remains a fundamentally charming concern, which is its major draw. Adrien Brody is rarely bad in a role- even in ‘Predators’ he proves his range, giving more heart and brain to a character who may traditionally have been thrown away as a briefly regenerated anarchic archetype of a particular type of action movie that had been left behind when Arnie swapped guns for governing. In ‘The Brothers Bloom’ he feels right as put-upon, glum younger brother Bloom; he is rarely better suited to a role than when it includes the capacity to be quirky and slightly off-kilter in a charming manner (a bit like Jason Schwartzman and Steve Buscemi in that respect).
Elder sibling Stephen is played well by Mark Ruffalo, who continues to convince that he is one of the strongest and again most broadly-ranged actors currently working. His casting as the Hulk in the forthcoming ‘Avengers’ project may have seemed initially odd, but in almost every performance he has committed to screen so far, he has shown admirable ability as the moral or emotional heart of the movie. He is able, quite effortlessly to carry the weight of that expectation, without pomp or pomposity, and as Stephen (particularly in his final scenes) he provides just enough balance to Brody’s brooding character. Sadly, the script doesn’t really offer either Brody or Ruffalo the opportunity to build up any kind of heart- they are simply too broadly drawn, and way too self-consciously odd to have the kind of humanist appeal that Joseph Gordon-Levitt brought to ‘Brick’.
Rachel Weisz is the pick of the triumverate of leads- she brings an appealing, tender charm to a character who initially appears to be one of the more contrived, quirky elements of the film’s ultimately hollow attempt to embelish the con-genre with a touch of Johnson’s oblique artistic filter. Weisz outstrips her fellow actors (including supporting players Robbie Coltrane and Rinko Kikuchi) quite markedly- it isn’t just that her character is better-written than the others, it is also that her performance means she isn’t ever over-come by the oh-so-quirky-it-hurts foundations of her character.
The chief reason that some critics have found ‘The Brothers Bloom’ so difficult to take can be found in Johnson’s over-elaborate stylistics and the forced manner in which he makes his film a self-conscious oddity. In ‘Brick’, the quirkiness is effortless and the oddness more beautiful, but in ‘The Brothers Bloom’ every effort seems to have been made to make the action impenetrably baffling, and those efforts are all horribly forced. It is unfortunately one of those quirky, indie-esque films that tries way too hard, and ends up being hugely insistent on its own cool, as if Johnson is attempting to compensate (even apologise) for his new-found mainstream facilities (the actors, the budget) by dialling up the stylistic conventions that he assumes to be indie. And there are more than a few nods towards the style of Wes Anderson, but in a mindless aping manner that both devalues the subject of the homage by association and makes the end product a rather empty endeavour.
You can see what Johnson is trying to do- some five years ago he took a staple genre (the high-school film) and injected it with enough newness and the original spin of having it play as a noirish, skewed detective story and it worked, so for his second film he tried it again. This time Johnson turned his focus on the con-flick, already done to death (hence my earlier fear that the story was going to be the same old one), and tries to add his own take on the genre, paying enough of a homage to the original genre for it to be recognised (without it becoming parody or simple homage) but dialling up the quirk in an effort to recapture the effect of ‘Brick’. The result, after two hours of laboured eccentricity, is an oddly hollow end-product, even despite how good it occasionally looks- there is no zing and none of the sparkle that set Johnson’s debut apart.
There are however still things to admire (especially in the attention to style and tone) and Johnson is undoubtedly a potentially good film-maker, but I can only hope that next time he returns to source and sets his sights on a film with more humanist credentials, rather than one that is baffling for the sake of it. And I also hope he finds the time to develop his plot, adding substance to the style he can clearly already call to hand.
I’d partly like to believe that ‘The Brothers Bloom’ is merely an acquired taste that I don’t have the pallette for, such is my fondness for ‘Brick’ and my unwillingness to accept that a prodigal talent could score such a comparative miss. But there is just way too much that is contrived and overly “quirky” in place of actual substance or good old-fashioned entertainment to give that argument any real weight.