Friday, December 16, 2011

Overlooked Gems #17: The Brothers Bloom

Grade: 72 (B)

In 2006, first-time director wowed critics and audiences with his brilliant genre-riff Brick, a noir reset in a high school. Mixing the labyrinthine plotting and offbeat humor of a Coen Bros. noir with strange, David Lynch-like filmmaking touches, Johnson established himself as a force to be reckoned with. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, is a little less loved. While certainly admired by many (and even loved by some), the film struck some as too mannered and too caught up in its ability to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. Those charges aren’t entirely incorrect, but The Brothers Bloom is still a zesty piece a filmmaking from a director who promises to be one of the leading voices in modern film.

Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) are the Brothers Bloom, a couple of wily con men from childhood on. They are assisted by a mute, Japanese demolitions expert named “Bang Bang” (Rinko Kikuchi). Stephen loves what he does. Bloom, not so much, and his disaffection leads to him quitting after more than twenty years in the business. Stephen brings him in for one last job: conning lonely, eccentric millionaire Penelope (Rachel Weisz).Things get complicated, however, when Bloom falls in love with their latest mark.

Everyone is perfectly cast, from Brody as the disaffected sad-sack to Ruffalo as the self-satisfied smart-aleck to Robbie Coltrane as a Belgian associate. Weisz is particularly strong as a woman who takes enormous pleasure in being on an adventure, even as the whole thing turns out to be a con. The film is mannered, no doubt, but the chemistry of the actors brings weight to the film even when the plotting flies off the rails in the saggy middle section. By the end, the cast and Johnson regain composure for a complicated finale where it’s not clear until the very end who’s fooling who.

Brick was a remarkable, ambitious project, but The Brothers Bloom ups the ambition considerably: in addition to Coen-esque genre mastery, there’s the fact that the whole thing is one long con, like a self-aware David Mamet film or a jaunty remake of The Sting. There’s the offbeat characterizations and wry, oddball humor of a Wes Anderson movie. Finally, there’s the mad-prophet, go-for-broke ambitious filmmaking touches of a P.T. Anderson film (including opening narration from Ricky Jay in the same style as Magnolia), not to mention a great score from Johnson’s brother Nathan that’s reminiscent of Jon Brion’s scores for Anderson. Johnson’s debt to his influences might have overwhelmed the film, but his zeal and one of a kind look at the art of storytelling make for an agreeably shaggy lark.

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