Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Brothers Bloom"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“As far as con man stories go, I think I’ve heard them all.
Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall.
But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome,
twould be that of Penelope, and of the Brothers Bloom.”

-Narrator (Ricky Jay)

I won’t call Rian Johnson too clever (apparently he hated it in ’09), but writing the first six minutes of your film as a Little Rascals confidence game as rendered by Wes Anderson, in rhyming iambic heptameter, is definitely a conscious choice to show off your sense of style. But I expected nothing less from the director of Brick, which takes place at a modern American high school, but is a hard-boiled film noir detective story, complete with all the 1940s period dialogue, see? I don’t mind saying, Johnson is clever – and I’ve been rather pleased to see him try his hand at another genre in the intervening years – but his first two films certainly forced the audience to make an early choice about their willingness to suspend disbelief with respect to his out-of-this-world characters, who tell as much as they show, using words that nobody on this planet still uses, plucked from multiple decades of 20th-century fiction and slotted into the present day.

And the Brothers Bloom – Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody) – are confidence men posing as antique dealers who travel by fucking steamship to The Continent (even after the movie amusingly reveals that airplanes exist in this world). The two are definitely from a bygone era, and they wear a multitude of hats – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase. We see Stephen craft his first con when the pair are orphan brothers of 10 and 13, flitting from one foster family to another before inexorably getting kicked out for bad behavior. This is a pattern that would repeat for the rest of their lives, including with their criminal mentor, the villainous Russian mobster known only as Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell, in his final role), sporting an eyepatch from their last violent farewell. But – back to that first con. Even as a newly minted teenager, young Stephen (Max Records) is a firm believer that all the world’s a stage, and his brother Bloom (Zachary Gordon) is his star. He storyboards his first con – an elaborate scheme to get all of the town’s middle-class kids to muddy up their Sunday-best in order to collect kickbacks from the town dry cleaner – as cover to allow Bloom to talk to a girl he likes. Really, that’s it. He presents the con as an act of kindness, and would go on to say repeatedly that the perfect con is where, “each one involved gets just the thing they wanted”. This even includes the mark, who gets a thrill or an adventure or a whirlwind romance (or the chance to think they’ve murdered someone in a rage, then flee?) in exchange for a sum of stolen cash that, frankly, they can usually afford to lose.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Stephen is the closest thing to a Mary Sue that I’ve ever seen in fiction. This is not a term I use lightly in 2019, and it has a fairly muddled meaning (my only prior use of it fell somewhere between tokenism and stunt-casting). The term has deservedly fallen out of favor in the past decade, mostly used in bad faith by misogynists who can’t fathom the likes of Rey or Arya Stark kicking well-earned ass with skills that whose provenance was thoroughly demonstrated on-screen. As I retire my use of the term here, let me be clear what I mean by it: Stephen is an authorial, self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. The idea that Stephen’s authorship of Bloom’s existence is so thorough as to prevent his brother from experiencing an authentic moment in his life is not only a diabolical fiction; it beggars belief. And it works, because these actors fully commit to this reality with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness. What Ruffalo is delivering…is Rian Johnson with godlike powers. This is not even the only self-insert screenwriter character I’ve seen (Charlie Kaufman and Martin McDonagh are both prior culprits), but at a certain point, you’ve just gotta call Dante what he is as he winks at the reader and descends into the Inferno.

Stephen is the in-universe author of this film, deciding on the fly how best to serve his characters, which include family like Bloom, marks, like the rich, quirky, shut-in, dilettante, epileptic photographer Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and friends like the mute explosives expert Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). These are caper characters. Bang-Bang, who is literally mute and appeared out of nowhere, is essentially a plot device, even if Kikuchi delivers yet another amusing (silent) performance. But these caperists know exactly what they are, even if Bloom is suddenly the only one bothered by it. Because Stephen writes Bloom’s life, his brother plays the role of the shill, or the honeypot, in the structure of a confidence game. He ropes in the marks, which almost invariably include a beautiful woman – and we have to accept Brody’s well-acted assurance that today, he’s 35 years old, he’s been living a false life for twenty-plus years, and he’s decided he can’t wake up next to another stranger that thinks they know him. So he’s out. Both a decade ago and now, I was on board for this. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Because it’s supposed to be. Johnson-as-Stephen wrote Bloom as the vulnerable antihero so that we’d internalize his laudable reluctance to perform one last job (which Stephen waits three whole months before inviting him back for), and while I’m not totally convinced that it was necessary to have a character explicitly point this out on-screen, it does require Brody to be the acting MVP of this film. Even if he has ample competition.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Weisz had to sell Penelope’s bored, rich hobbyist ways by learning a multitude of skills, including playing a bunch of musical instruments, karate-chopping, backflipping, DJing, ping-ponging, juggling (I think the chainsaws were CGI), and riding a giraffe unicycle. But while that’s impressive, it’s not exactly acting. It’s an exhibition of parlor tricks, however impressive they may be after only a few weeks for the actor to train. But acting, Weisz’s primary hustle, is what happens on a train to Prague. Penelope has joined the brothers for a con to smuggle a stolen 8th century prayer book allegedly worth millions. As with all of her hobbies, Penelope is excited to try this one, and she’s leaning hard into the sleeper-car fantasy of it all. That’s to say, she schmoozes with Bloom, nurses her 9th mini-bottle of an unspecified liquor, before drunkenly (and graphically) describing him as “constipated…in [his] fucking soul”. She also admits that she knows she’s only pretending to be a smuggler. Then she ruminates on acting a bit and climbs to the end of the bed, telling Bloom that his problem is that he’s got to stop thinking so much and live his truth. Then a thunderstorm erupts outside, and she proceeds to fuck the train, after a fashion, before announcing (completely unnecessarily) that she’s horny. This really must be seen to be believed, because in a movie full of deliberately overwritten scenes, this is a movie character getting shitfaced and telling her castmate that she knows all of this may be fiction, but they’re on a train for a leisurely crime, and the best thing he can do is enjoy the ride. And then she writhes orgasmically to cement the point. For a moment, she’s a creature of pure id who’s shamelessly breaking the fourth wall, and rather than feeling manic or pixie or like any sort of a dream girl about it, the moment feels completely genuine. Ugly and sloppy and ridiculous, but real. And it scares the shit out of Bloom, who immediately bids her goodnight and flees the car. Penelope was right about him. Soul full of grumpy poop, that one.

I suppose this is where I’m meant to ruminate on how The Brothers Bloom has changed for me over the past decade, but if I’m being honest, despite paying thirty bucks for a Canadian import Blu-ray so I could see the film a bit earlier (since it never came to Seattle for a theatrical release), this is only the second time I can recall watching it. But it delighted me today, as it did a decade ago. Its production design is stellar, with both costuming and locales (for which the movie really flitted around Eastern Europe) giving the movie a real jet-setting (train-setting?) international flair without looking like it cost all that much to make. Nathan Johnson‘s score, with his group The Cinematic Underground, is a sheer delight – at times sweet and sentimental, at times an epic, jazzy romp on an outdoor bar stage, and features creativity and breadth of style and instruments that are rarely seen. This was only Johnson’s second film score (his first being Brick), and I’m pleased to see he’s continued making music in the intervening years, even if that includes only a handful of film scores.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

But as I sat on my couch sipping merlot and playing out the part of the film wonk revisiting a movie for the hell of it, I know in my heart this movie is as much of a narrative mess as lesser fare that I’ve dismissed over the years, like Matchstick Men or Bandits or…yes, I’ll admit it, The Sting. It’s perhaps a lesser grift than the 2003 James Foley film, Confidence, the best of the genre that I can recall, but that film seemed far more concerned with its grifting technique than in crafting characters I should care too much about. It also featured Weisz in a dubious and lightly misogynistic role that was frankly beneath her, so it’s hard not to see Bloom as an improvement for her participation in the genre. As a 30-something revisiting the film now, I find I can relate much more to Bloom’s struggle to find his identity and be comfortable in his own skin. By this point in life, you’re meant be able to live with who you are and your place in the world – and if you can’t, that’s a serious problem for both your life and mental health. Seeing this a decade ago, I just kinda rolled with the film’s premise. Seeing it now, I empathized a great deal with Bloom’s struggle, even if I was making an even more conscious choice than before to suspend my disbelief about his lifestyle. Penelope presents another lens through which to view this struggle, because she’s a creature of privilege who can afford to flit from one identity to another at will, never feeling a sunk cost of money or time (the latter being the most precious and limited resource). The film seems content to mock her a bit for this, twice featuring a spiral notebook in which she’s scribbling “Penelope the Smuggler” and “Penelope the Con Artist” like a 12-year-old. But is Penelope really the immature one? What this character says over and over again is that she writes her own story – that she tells it to herself over and over again until it becomes true. But she prefaces this by saying that the trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat. I found this provocative because I now believe it’s easy to feel cheated as you learn more and more how the world works, even as there’s almost certainly someone else would look at your life and wonder what you have to complain about. And perhaps that’s why we root for con artists and antiheroes. Anyone who breaks the rules to peel off a fragment of wealth from the handful of robber barons who hoard most of it…is worth rooting for. Even if they tend to end up dead or in prison in real life. But I knew all of this already – or at least “knew it” in the sense of banal cynicism. The emotional core of this film is still fundamentally about becoming comfortable with your identity and your place in the world, and however my worldview may have changed in the intervening years, there’s a lot I can connect with here.

I also recognize that it’s difficult to get the tone just right in the con game. The saving grace of The Brothers Bloom is its commitment to maintaining about a 3:1 ratio of romantic whimsy to self-seriousness at all times – even to the point of letting Penelope walk out of a Czech police station with the stolen prayer book in hand, with the script literally scoffing on-screen at the idea of ever explaining how she did it. My guess is that a substantial bribe was involved. The film’s caprice runs a very real risk of making me dismiss it as a silly trifle, but that’s not how I felt while watching it, and more or less how I feel watching James Bond, so really, who cares? I’m happy to let the movie be what it is, which is a flight of fancy from a bygone era, filled with fourth-wall breaking characters who literally know better than to be doing all of this. And capers do happen in real life. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and a billionaire Coke heir were just busted with a plane full of Business Weed in St. Kitts this past week! Capers are just…marginally more likely if you don’t have work in the morning. Or if you can commit to your new life of crime by blowing up your existing one.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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2009 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

#5: Marcia Gay Harden – Brooke Cavendar, Whip It

Marcia Gay Harden in "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It (review), was an adept entry in the sporting genre (in this case, roller derby), made even more effective by some impressive casting and rich characters. The great Marcia Gay Harden plays Brooke Cavendar, an overbearing mother who puts constant pressure on her daughter, Bliss (Ellen Page), to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball. Bliss, meanwhile, would rather throw elbows and knock out teeth on the derby track. Brooke is an apt parallel to overeager football dads, but Harden’s performance is far more layered than such a stock character would normally require. Even as she steadfastly refuses to consider her Bliss’ wish to continue with roller derby, her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing shines through. She is stubborn, imperfect, but utterly well-meaning, and Harden’s strong performance contributes to making this one of the most engaging relationships in the film.

#4: Diane Kruger – Bridget von Hammersmark, Inglourious Basterds

Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds"

As I said in my review, I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses, and German actress Diane Kruger was no exception. As she knocks back champagne and disarms an entire tavern of soldiers with a single laugh or smile, she harkens back to a time in which celebrity meant something altogether different for an actress from what it means today. And as her true role becomes apparent, she portrays her fictitious vintage film-starlet-cum-saboteur with exactly the right blend of elegance and ruthlessness.

#3: Rinko Kikuchi – Bang Bang, The Brothers Bloom

Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"

Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi first came onto my radar with her fantastic performance as a deaf student (and nearly the only interesting character) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. She returns in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom as another less-than-verbose character… We are told that the brothers’ sidekick and demolitions expert, Bang Bang, speaks about three words of English, and indeed, this is about all we hear from her during the film. Nonetheless, Kikuchi’s brilliance at physical comedy and remarkable range of facial expressions make her one of the most memorable and hilarious characters in the film. If there’s one thing Javier Bardem showed in No Country for Old Men, it’s that a character with very little dialogue can still be quite compelling. With her performance in this film, Kikuchi has proven this true once again, and further proven that such a character doesn’t have to be a daunting psychopath.

#2: Kristen Stewart – Em Lewin, Adventureland

Kristen Stewart in "Adventureland"

Kristen Stewart is either a brilliant actress or a one-time fluke. Here’s what I had to say about her eight months ago when I first saw Adventureland:

As much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without [Jesse] Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

As Dave Chen from /Film points out, there is a “massive gulf between her on-screen charisma, and her off-screen persona”. Since Adventureland, all I’ve really seen from Stewart is a considerable foray into celebrity, and an understandable, if unremarkable return to her principal moneymaker. At this point, I must reserve judgment on whether she’ll prove a strong actress after she has left the Twilight franchise behind… Nonetheless, this is one of the most brilliant performances I’ve seen this year, and I have absolutely no qualms about praising it.

#1: Vera Farmiga – Alex Goran, Up in the Air

Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"

“Just think of me as yourself, but with a vagina,” says Alex to Ryan (George Clooney), with whom she has just shared a casual hotel fling. In my original review, I said that it is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She is almost a total mystery – we know that she lives a similar life to Ryan, spending much of her time flying around the country, but we don’t really know much else. And yet, Farmiga’s performance and chemistry with Clooney completely make this romance work. While we don’t learn much about her profession, we do learn a great deal about her as a person. This character is somewhat of a mirror, acting as both a female version of Ryan and an older version of his colleague Natalie (Anna Kendrick). But in her interactions with the two, she offers some remarkable insights. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Alex and Natalie swapping their respective versions of the ideal man. Farmiga’s monologue in this scene is just fantastic. Even as she is saying some pretty provocative things (e.g. “Please, let him earn more money than I do”), her delivery includes all the hesitation and reflection that comes with such a deeply personal question as one’s ideal match. On the surface, this scene simply highlights the difference in perspective between women in their 20s and 30s, but it also provides a mountain of subtext for the film’s central romance between Alex and Ryan that gives the film immeasurable rewatch value.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Alia Shawkat as Pash in Whip It
  • Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It
  • Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me to Hell
  • Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in Public Enemies

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.