Review: The Brothers Bloom

Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Robbie Coltrane, Rinko Kikuchi, Maximilian Schell
Released: 2008 / Genre: Offbeat Comedy / Country: USA / IMDB
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Amazon.co.uk: DVD | Blu-ray

Maryland-born writer-director Rian Johnson was just one of a sea of talented filmmakers yet to be given their break when he made the comedy short Evil Demon Golfball From Hell. The title alone doesn’t inspire high-brow interested and perhaps that is the point, but there was potential in his eight minute short film about a killer golf ball which stalks a hapless thief. It wasn’t until ten years later that Johnson proudly accept the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for Brick. The film would quickly become a favourite of audiences lucky enough to see it, and also a darling with the critics who praised its distinct style. Made for just $500,000, Brick was very much a tale of perseverance and the courage to take a chance.

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But what happens next when audiences and critics alike are anticipating your next movie with the sort of bated breath usually reserved for long-standing Hollywood veterans whose films demand attention whether they be good or bad. Johnson was tasked, just like successful musicians trying to figure out how to formulate that difficult second album, to live up to the expectations of his newly found following. In setting the bar high he had made it possible to make another movie but that comes with its own set of challenges.

Whether you watch The Brothers Bloom having seen Brick, or whether you watch the film as an introduction to the director, one thing is for certain – Johnson has his own voice. He’s an auteur in the classic sense of the word. And, if the film doesn’t quite reach the high altitude class of Brick, it’s one hell of a good attempt. Comparisons will be made, but The Brothers Bloom is a wholly different film that, in being unique, retains the director’s telling sensibilities and his richly textured visual style.

brothers bloom, rian johnson, rachel weisz, adrien brody
The film has shades of Soderbergh’s manic pace in Ocean’s Eleven, the sublime visual touches of Tim Burton’s Big Fish, and the fairytale whimsy of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, but The Brothers Bloom takes its influences and concocts something that is otherwise an original take on self-discovery and boy-meets-girl.

The film begins with an introduction to the brothers as children. Stephen, the elder, is a dominant presence in Bloom’s life, and Bloom carries out his brother’s wildly imaginative confidence schemes without much input. The parentless children find themselves moved between foster homes because of their grand scheming finding trouble at every turn. Flashing forward several years we find the brothers doing what they do best – conning people out of money. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) continues to be the guiding force in their double-act as Bloom (Adrien Brody) remains subservient to his older brother’s direction. Bang Bang, a Japanese girl who Stephen is dating, has joined them to aid their cons, but after another successful scheme Bloom becomes disillusioned with it all. He realises he hasn’t lived his life without his brother’s interference and isn’t sure that he even can. He moves to Montenegro in an attempt to break free. However, Stephen tracks him down and convinces him to do one final con on Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an innocent, socially-inactive millionairess.

The film has shades of Soderbergh’s manic pace in Ocean’s Eleven, the sublime visual touches of Tim Burton’s Big Fish, and the fairytale whimsy of Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, but The Brothers Bloom takes its influences and concocts something that is otherwise an original take on self-discovery and boy-meets-girl. I’ll admit I was frequently reminded of Big Fish throughout the film but not because Johnson borrows from Burton’s modern day masterpiece, he’s just that good and that imaginative to be thought of in the same league as the visionary Edward Scissorhands director. Indeed, The Brothers Bloom is a joy for the head and the heart. Its colourful images and kinetic editing the perfect visual style for a wonderfully inspired, offbeat story of mind games and red herrings underpinned by a whole lot love and a little bit of romance. It’s clear that Johnson is having a ball. And his enthusiasm and idiosyncrasies rub off on the actors who bring the director’s obvious passion for a great story to life with lively, energetic performances.

The film was originally titled Penelope after Rachel Weisz’s character but the name was dropped in favour of the brothers who have greater screen time. However, while Ruffalo and the always consistent performer Adrien Brody are perfectly suited to their roles, and maintain a close-knit chemistry that the film hangs on, it is Weisz who delivers the finest performance of her career so far. She’s delightful as the socially-inept misfortunate who the brothers target for their final scheme. She adds a couple of gears to her physically comic turn in The Mummy while inserting some of the vulnerability she’s displayed in films such as The Constant Gardener. And here she plays Penelope as this larger-than-life woman who has yet to actually live. She’s been stuck in her mansion, learning crafts and teaching herself how to play instruments, all the while becoming a personality all to herself but lacking the insecurities of living in the real world. Her money has insulated her, and now Bloom and Stephen are going to set her free. Weisz is totally game; Penelope is a wonderfully spirited child in adult clothing. Whether she is dancing in front of Johnson’s beautifully filmed moonlit backdrop or falling out of air vents with an antique book clenched between her teeth, she’s this onscreen presence who emits joy from every pore.

brothers bloom, rachel weisz best performance
Weisz…delivers the finest performance of her career so far. She adds a couple of gears to her physically comic turn in The Mummy while inserting some of the vulnerability she’s displayed in films such as The Constant Gardener.

Penelope’s introduction is a perfect example of the film’s offbeat sense of humour. After pretending to get run over by her, Bloom watches as she seemingly tries to turn her sports car around. Johnson has us believing she simply can’t drive her expensive motor vehicle, as she jerks forward and back moving precariously close to a hillside drop. The next thing we see is the car disappearing down the hillside as Bloom looks back at his brother who is watching from higher up the hill. Bang Bang, who had earlier held up cards with numbers on to indicate what she thought of Bloom’s staged car accident like the judges at the Olympics, holds her cards up again, this time giving him a higher score.

It is a shame Johnson couldn’t find more screen time for Robbie Coltrane (a seedy co-conspirator who helps the brothers build the con on Penelope) and Maximillian Schell (a former mentor and now enemy of the brothers) who offer further glimpses of the director’s darkly comic creativity and ability to formulate interesting, anomalous characters.

And like the eccentricity inherent in his characters, the plot and the world the characters inhabit is as extraordinary. Witness the modern concerns of flashy sports cars and semi-automatic handguns in a world where people still communicate via telegram and travel across the sea on ocean liners. There’s also the oddball glimpses of Johnson’s wayward side. A camel appears out of nowhere as the brothers talk about their life; Robbie Coltrane’s enters like a sadistic stage magician backlit by orange and red hues; Rachel Weisz writhes in orgasmic pleasure to a thunder storm; and Maximillian Schell’s ugly ogre seems to have stepped off the Pirates of the Caribbean production lot and bribed his way on to the set. But as these peculiarities flit in and out like an annoying wasp that keeps trying to drown itself in your fruit juice, Johnson counterpunches with scenes of the utmost beauty. Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz dancing on the ocean liner’s deck with a bright, star-filled and moonlit sky in the background is one of the most joyful sequences in the film. And Weisz’s reaction to being caught red handed with the antique book she’s trying to steal is a image you won’t soon forget. But whether Johnson is being spontaneously odd, physically comic, or romantically whimsical, it all adds up to a singular charm that The Brothers Bloom exudes.

The postmodern tendencies of the style extend to the substance as well with Stephen desperately trying to find the perfect story to go along with the perfect con. Johnson also adopts an episodic narrative framed by title cards proclaiming what part of the story we are about to witness. That could be a criticism of the film had the director not handled it with such inventive mise en scene and some genuinely funny moments.

brothers bloom, mark ruffalo, adrien brody, rachel weisz, comedy, offbeat,
…the film celebrates its offbeat nature through writer-director Rian Johnson’s twisted, frequently wayward, and often impulsive comic moments that display a perverse but beautifully whimsical imagination.

The film does fail to make use of its globetrotting story as the locales take a reserved backseat. With Johnson’s unconventional universe it also becomes a sort of Anywhereville that looks vaguely like somewhere in central Europe. The film was actually shot in several central and eastern European countries – Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. There’s also the convoluted third act that becomes a little too complicated for its own good. By the time the con on con on con leaves you wondering who is scheming who, any semblance of honesty is thrown out the window in favour of audience self-preservation. You’re suddenly guarded about the relationships you thought were authentic and the film loses some of its warm-heartedness on its carefully constructed way to the big finale. But, admittedly, Johnson makes it all worthwhile with an ending that is as bittersweet as it is the perfect denouement to the brother’s story.

The Brothers Bloom is a charming and idiosyncratic comedy. It celebrates its offbeat nature through writer-director Rian Johnson’s twisted, frequently wayward, and often impulsive comic moments that display a perverse but beautifully whimsical imagination. The film is also notable for the performance of Rachel Weisz who is irresistible throughout and an absolute joy to watch. Johnson is a talented storyteller and a visually dynamic director, and The Brothers Bloom is evidence, if we ever needed it, he is no one trick pony.

Written by Daniel Stephens

The UK DVD and Blu-ray is released on October 4th 2010. It features a great little featurette lasting around 15 minutes that contains lots of on-set footage as the director works with the actors and crew. There is also a 19 minute interview with the director Rian Johnson, over 30 minutes of deleted scenes with director commentary, and a trailer for the film.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Marc Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed this film and reviewed it myself a little while back: http://www.goseetalk.com/?p=5780

    It was quirky, funny as hell, beautifully shot, and I like when you say, “an ending that is as bittersweet as it is the perfect denouement to the brother’s story”. Further I like your comparison to Ocean’s 11 and Paper Moon.

    Solid review Dan!

  2. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    I like Weisz, she made the film for me.

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