Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell, Ricky Jay (narrator), Zachary Gordon, Max Records, Andy Nyman, Noah Segan, Nora Zehetner
Written by: Rian Johnson
Directed by: Rian Johnson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and brief strong language
Running Time: 113
Date: 09/09/2008

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Con Song

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rian Johnson's debut film was the incredible Brick (2006), but it was so good that it practically targeted him as a man ripe for a sophomore slump. The Brothers Bloom is here, and it's certainly a step down from Brick, but it's not exactly a sophomore slump. It's filled with hilarious, humdinger dialogue, imaginative images (I particularly like the fallen angel) and a pace that somehow embraces both energetic and deadpan. Taking only its first three-quarters, I'd argue that it's the most entertaining movie around. Its major mistake is the same one that most movies make; it fails to completely trust the audience. Johnson busies himself with wrapping up his elaborate con-artist plot, and at the same time delivering a message about living an "unwritten life" and forgets that -- you know -- we might have picked up some of that stuff for ourselves.

Like Tarantino, Johnson appears enamored of the look and feel of classic crime films, and he not only pays homage to them (here with the characters' suits, ties and hats), but also conveys his enthusiasm for them; it's infectious. After a nifty prologue setting up the brothers as con artists from a young age, we meet the grown-ups: Mark Ruffalo as Stephen and Adrien Brody as Bloom. Stephen is the older one, the cynical planner who has it all figured out. Bloom is the dreamer, the lover. He often wishes he were somewhere else, with someone else. He has apparently quit the con game many times, but his brother always talks him back (presumably with the aid of some libations). Stephen has a helpful sidekick nicknamed "Bang Bang" (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel). She barely speaks, but carries herself with a detached confidence, especially when it comes to shooting things or blowing things up.

Their "one last big con" involves a reclusive, peculiar -- but adorable -- millionaire, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), who has been more or less a shut-in since her childhood. Bloom mounts a bicycle and crashes into her Lamborghini; they spend a delightful afternoon, inspiring her to come along on their travels. The brothers tempt her with the story of an 8th century prayer book, which, if stolen and passed off correctly, could net them $2.5 million. (She's more interested in the adventure than in the money.)

The question remains: how much of this is a con planned by Stephen to get his brother a girlfriend, and how much is real? Is the relationship between Bloom and Penelope real, or is it just part of the con? These are questions that come up again and again, for us and for the characters (since the characters are not stupid). But in asking too many times, the movie forgets its pace and sense of humor. Things eventually slow down and grow a bit lumpy. It's too bad that Johnson couldn't have done a bit of trimming and tightening here in the final quarter, given that Brick was such a superbly finely-tuned machine.

Robbie Coltrane also appears as "The Curator" (also known as "The Belgian"), and Maximilian Schell plays the sinister, one-eyed "Diamond Dog," who taught the boys all they know. I have to confess that, for me, this is Weisz's finest role to date; it's the first in which she seems to found some inner glory that matches her outer beauty. Ruffalo is at home playing a slightly shady charmer -- cocking his hat at various angles -- and Brody is fine, playing a slightly dreamy sort, but also with enough skills and street smarts to play the game.

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