The Brothers Bloom takes the structure of a caper movie—with two con men, their accomplice, and their mark at the center—but that’s not what is. The con isn’t the point of the movie any more than it’s the point for the con men. Stephen, the mastermind, is an artist. In the words of Bloom, his brother and longtime partner in crime, Stephen “writes cons like dead Russians write novels.” But Bloom has tired of playing parts in Stephen’s games, no matter how well written they might be. He feels lost, without his own identity, and he struggles to find the words to express his frustration: “I want—” “You want an unwritten life,” Stephen provides. Bloom emphatically agrees, repeating the words, and then his face falls. Stephen winks.
If you don’t find that exchange utterly charming and poetic, you’re never going to like this movie. Hell, you’re never going to get through the prologue, a fable-like tale from the brothers’ childhood, narrated in verse (verse!) by the incomparable Ricky Jay. Writer-director Rian Johnson has no use for realism and no aversion to contrivance. In fact, he embraces the contrivance, toying with it and admiring it, because in the end, this is a story about contrivance, a story about storytelling: fictions we tell about ourselves and fictions we tell to ourselves, fictions that confine us and fictions that expand our world, fictions that remain fictions and fictions that come true.
For all its ambition, The Brothers Bloom doesn’t quite reach the heights Johnson is aiming at, but it has such warmth and so much color that its shortcomings don’t bother me much. True, I’m a sucker for this kind of movie—the self-conscious, hyperstylized, but exquisitely heartfelt melodrama—but Johnson really does have a flair for language, its rhythms and subtleties, and with such a talented cast breathing life into the artfully crafted turns of phrase, The Brothers Bloom is a joyful, winsome experience.
Adrien Brody plays poor, dejected Bloom, and Mark Ruffalo his cunning but affectionate brother, Stephen. (The movie never explains why they are collectively as the Brothers Bloom, and it never gives their surname.) When Bloom swears off grifting, Stephen and their enigmatic confederate Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) convince him to join them in one last con. The target is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a lonely, sheltered heiress whom Bloom is supposed to draw into a labyrinthine smuggling scheme. Inevitably, though, Bloom falls hard for Penelope, and as the endgame looms, the part he has to play becomes increasingly constricting.
I enjoy Johnson’s writing tremendously, but without a sensitive, committed cast, his mannered dialogue would fall flat. Fortunately, Bloom features a fabulous ensemble. At first, the casting of the brothers threw me—I would have expected Brody to play the schemer and Ruffalo the lovelorn romantic—but both actors are so good in Bloom that the cross-type performances soon felt perfect. Brody’s lanky, oddly proportioned features convey melancholy beautifully, and the more conventionally handsome Ruffalo exudes dark undercurrents that suit Stephen well. The two actors have a prickly rapport that gives the relationship between the brothers genuine poignancy; even in the midst of the crazy plot, the familial tangle of fondness and exasperation is always palpable.
As for the actresses, Kikuchi’s Bang Bang has virtually no dialogue—the character likes to play at not understanding English, though it’s obvious she does—so Kikuchi gives a cheeky, animated silent-movie style performance, a small masterpiece of facial expression and body language. And Weisz takes a character that slips dangerously close to idealized plot device (what The Onion’s A.V. Club so memorably described as a manic pixie dream girl) and gives Penelope a soul and an understated arc of her own. Like Bloom, Penelope has been given a role by Stephen, but she plays on her own terms.
The interesting thing about the con, though, is Stephen’s philosophy of the grift: In the perfect con, everyone gets what he or she wants most. It’s a more generous take on the familiar notion that cons target dishonesty and greed (“You can’t cheat an honest man”), and in fact, it’s a broad hint that we’re not really talking about cons at all. Stephen is after money, yes, but from his very first scheme, his primary motive has been to find a way to make Bloom happy. The parts he writes for his brother are meant to give the shy, assuming Bloom entry into worlds he doesn’t otherwise have the confidence to broach. In the words of the narrator: “Bloom, being who he wasn’t, could be he whom he wished to be.”
Penelope, too, gets what she needs most: adventure and a chance to put years of intense book-learning to use. Even we, the audience, get a gift: a gorgeous, ravishingly shot travelogue across Europe, on steamships and old-fashioned trains, with an eccentrically dressed foursome as our guide. Eventually, the plotting gets rather muddy, as if Johnson isn’t quite sure how to deliver on his themes, but he still manages a lovely final scene between Stephen and Bloom, with just the right notes and just the right resolution. The Brothers Bloom isn’t a great movie, but it shows great promise (this is only Johnson’s second movie; his first was Brick, which some found “too clever” but which I loved), and in a few glittering moments, it does achieve an idiosyncratic greatness, when all the wordplay and polish, far from obscuring the humanity of the characters, actually illuminate it.