Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Review: The Brothers Bloom

Orphaned brothers Stephen and Bloom spend their childhoods shuffling from one foster family to another, and are always the odd outsiders.

Noticing his younger brother’s yearning to connect with others, Stephen concocts a larcenous swindle wherein Bloom infiltrates a group of kids and claims to know of a hermit who, in turn, knows of a cave of treasure marked by a will-o’-the-wisp. The hermit, he tells them, will only divulge the location of the cave for thirty dollars, or two per kid.

Stephen rigs an illusion with a flashlight’s beam reflected in a puddle at the mouth of a cave, and the kids get so excited that they don’t care that there isn’t any treasure.

‘In the end’, a proud Stephen says while leafing through his cash, ‘the perfect con is where each one involved gets just the thing they wanted’. An uncertain Bloom can only say 'I guess so.'

Twenty-five years later, Mark Ruffalo is Stephen, and Adrien Brody is Bloom.

 Adrien Brody and his eternal sad puppy face.

The two are now professional con artists known as The Brothers Bloom (2008, trailer), which I guess makes Bloom’s full name Bloom Bloom (either that or he only has one name, McLovin-style).

Bloom is unsatisfied with the brothers’ life of constant pretence and wants out, but Stephen convinces him to stick around for one last job. The mark is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a lonely, billionaire heiress.

The brothers have their con-cohort, ‘The Curator’ (Robbie Coltrane) surreptitiously inform her that he has an 'eighth-century prayer book,’ which he intends to sell to smugglers for 1 million dollars. Also, he tells her ‘The Argentine’ will be willing to purchase it from them for 2.5. Penelope jumps at the chance to escape her uneventful life, put up the cash, and become a smuggler.

The brothers then come up with further exciting adventures (what she wants) in order to siphon away more of her money (what they want.)

My Take

If the seminal con man movies like The Sting stylize real con men, The Brothers Bloom is a confused and even more stylized take on this stylized take. 

Its aesthetic is an anachronistic hodgepodge, apparently cobbled together from what looks cool in the movies: the action is pursued by a soundtrack of trumpet-y swing music, messages are sent by telegraph, and the Blooms wear old-school suits with waistcoats and bowler hats. However, the characters also take trans-Atlantic flights, and Penelope drives a modern-day Lamborghini.

Normally, con movies establish their dramatic tension between reality and the tenuous fiction that the grifters must fabricate and present to their marks. In the case of Bloom, the eclectic timelessness of its setting makes ‘reality’ difficult to determine - especially when it is populated by weird, fantastical characters such as the cycloptic Diamond Dog.

Yes, Diamond Dog.

Since the reality of the story is so unpredictable, I can't ascertain the boundary for what is possible, and therefore the extent of the brothers' ability to deceive. Their world is so crazy that I'd think they could conceive of any ridiculous fiction and anyone would believe it.

Bloom, our protagonist, is relentlessly miserable. He constantly moans about his desire for a ‘real’, authentic life, but we never learn what he wants in life, and so his character becomes defined solely by his sullen complaining.

At the beginning Bloom abandons Stephen and the con life and is left to his own devices. Three months later, Stephen tracks him down to a hovel in Montenegro where Bloom is passed-out, drunk and alone. When Stephen brings him back to America for their last con, Bloom tries to get out of it: ‘No. I’ll be in Montenegro, drinking.’

What a sorry bastard. Who cares about him? I’d rather see the solo adventures of Stephen, at least he has fun.

The character of Penelope is childishly naïve and prone to making cloyingly wacky, profane pronouncements:

'I think you're constipated, in your fucking soul... I think you might have a really big load of grumpy, petrified poop up your soul's ass.'

She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the archetypal fantasy love interest whose impulsiveness, vitality (and invariable sexiness) infuses angst-ridden male protagonists’ lives with a newfound sense of meaning. Zooey Deschanel has built her acting career on such roles, and ditto Ben Stiller with the complementary broody leading man roles.

Penelope is such a perfectly-tuned antidote to Bloom's cynicism that I at one point thought she was a plant of Stephen's in some larger plot to con Bloom somehow.

Speaking of bizarre, exaggerated characters, the brothers are always accompanied by a Japanese woman named Bang Bang (Norwegian WoodRinko Kikuchi) who, surprisingly, specializes in blowing things up.

She's also mute, and her screen time is comprised of explosion-related visual gags and sarcastic, eye-rolling reaction shots. 

So, she's more or less a human Garfield.

The Brothers Bloom is brimming with ‘stuff’, by which I mean visual bells and whistles which densely pack each sequence and occupy the viewer’s attention: As the brothers stand in front of Penelope’s massive estate contemplating their mark, they see her crash her Lamborghini into a statue. As we see Bloom and Stephen share a dialogue a minute later, an identical replacement appears in the background on a truck approaching the house.

Later, while Penelope sits at a table with Bloom and talks about her unhappy childhood, an unbroken shot of her hands shows her perform an elaborate disappearing-card trick, the steps of which are punctuated by the rhythm of her speech.

The story gallivants to such far-flung places as Mexico, Greece and St. Petersburg, but it might as well only have one location, since the same characters keep popping up (including Diamond Dog.)

Shootouts, explosions, escaped zoo animals, the aforementioned madcap score, the entire character of Bang Bang… it all seems to me to be so very superfluous, as if the activity, scenery and ‘stuff’, coupled with a decent cast, is all a trick to make me watch it the whole way through.

Ooh… hang on, maybe that’s the perfect con…

Further Reading

For a thorough definition of the 'manic pixie dream girl' and an explanation of why it is an unhealthy fantasy, you can see the video entitled Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Feminist's Anita Sarkeesian.

For more about con man movies, see my post about Nine Queens.

Screengrabs: The Brothers Bloom was produced by Endgame Entertainment, Ram Bergman Productions, and the Weinstein Company. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment. 
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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