Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: The Brothers Bloom

Man, this has been my week for pre-screenings. It's almost like living in LA again, except that it's currently 26 degrees outside.

It doesn't do that in LA.

The Brothers Bloom is the latest... erm... second film from writer/director Rian Johnson. His previous film, Brick, is a detective noir set in a California high school and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most perfect movies ever committed to celluloid. While Brick had a production budget of half a million dollars (which is not much for a film with several recognizable stars in it) and was filmed at Johnson's childhood haunts, it works on the strength of clever dialog, beautiful (if quirky) cinematography, and a well-written story.

Brilliance on a budget--but what happens when you give the ingenue some real money to play with on the strength of a cobbled-together debut? Will it be an Empire Strikes Back or a Southland Tales?

The good news: The Brothers Bloom is wonderfully entertaining. Is it better than Brick? Well, that's hard to answer, because it's a very, very different type of movie. The only carry-overs are a couple of cameos. Nora Zehetner, dressed up as what could be a femme fatale, shows up for about a minute and flirts with Adrian Brody. This is about 59-and-a-half seconds longer than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's whip-pan, blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in which he has no lines but is dressed up as what could be a private investigator.

Okay, Johnson's cousin Nathan still did the music, and I'm sure several crew members came back, but nothing about Brothers feels like a re-tread, unlike the aforementioned Southland Tales. The comparison is worth a moment's pause. Richard Kelly's debut Donnie Darko is an incomprehensible (or at least under-explained) sci-fi tale peppered with brilliant character moments, an ironically-cool 80's-tastic soundtrack, and perhaps the weirdest iconic antagonist ever. Thusly, it has achieved a cult of loyal followers, gets regularly re-screened at art house theatres (you know it's art-house because of the spelling). Then Tales came out, which was equally incomprehensible but somewhat less enjoyable (I'm told--I haven't bothered with it). It attempted to expound upon the Darko-verse sci-fi mythos, only on a more sprawling, epic scale, but really all it did was convince us that Donnie Darko was a fluke--a happy accident that will not soon be reproduced.

But I digress.

The Brothers Bloom is a fairy tale of con artists. It's the story of two brothers, Stephen and Bloom (their surname is never given, which makes the title something of an oddity--but not like a Quantum of Solace level oddity, although I've read somewhere that maybe "Bloom" is their last name, we just never learn Bloom's first name) who grew up bouncing between foster homes. Their finely-tuned mischief develops into a full-fledged confidence scheme that inspires them to pursue a livelihood of it--only they put the "artist" in "con artist". The creative genius is the older brother, Stephen (played by Mark Ruffalo) who is ever in search of the perfect con or a genuine "wow" from his compatriots. His brother wants freedom--or maybe love. He doesn't know what he wants, but he wants out. They are assisted by a Japanese explosives expert named Bang-Bang. She has maybe three spoken words in the entire film and steals every single scene she touches. Lastly, there's Rachel Weisz as Penelope, the beautiful (if quirky) mark.

The elaborate ruse will take them from New Jersey to Greece to Prague to Mexico. The dialog is witty, sharp and at times Suessian. The shots are gorgeous, and the sight gags are out of this world. I think most of the budget actually went towards explosions and wrecking expensive cars--none of which are all that plot-important, but they're all quite funny. In fact, what I think I liked third-most about this film is the way it laughs in the face of cool. It never tries to be cool, and most of the "cool" things that happen are just there to frame the characters and their stories. Penelope drives a bright yellow Lamborghini... into things.  She can juggle chainsaws, but she can't keep up a conversation.  Stephen gets an upsetting telegram which he burns defiantly, only to realize that he had nowhere to put the flaming thing, which resulted in about 15 seconds of nervous stomping.  There are no fancy computer interfaces--their schemes are laid out on crudely-scrawled flowcharts.  Even the plot-driving "con" plays second fiddle to its participants.

Sadly, this is where things break down a bit.  You can't have a con-film without an elaborate con-ending, and while the ending is unexpected and totally in-line with the characters, the justification for it seems a bit flimsy.  In fact, the whole last-quarter or so drags ever-so-slightly, which takes the overall rating a notch down from "perfect" to "damned good".  My other complaint is the late-arriving antagonist Diamond Dog, a former mentor who is distractingly over-the-top and mysterious.  There is obvious bad blood between DD and his former protoges, but it's never explained fully.  I don't normally have a problem with that, but to have such an unlikely villain (cape, eyepatch and all) show up out of the blue was awkward.  But there was plenty of unexplained background that did work--one of my favorite bits involved Bloom commenting on Bang-Bang's choice of getaway car, a '79 Caddy, which he described as "controversial".

(Ham-handed segue in 3...2..1...)

In addition to background information, there was plenty of good background action, which may be my second-most favorite thing about this flick.  Film is, above all, a visual medium, and there was always something going on visually that told the story.  There's a hilarious bit with a sugar dispenser in an early scene that not only entertains, but tells the viewer a great deal more about the brother's relationship than the dialog that they speak over it, which gives the movie plenty of layers through which to tell the tale.

All of it adds up to a movie that is smart--and this is my first-most favorite thing: a good, well-written story.  And in that regard, it doesn't matter what it's about.  It could be about siamese twins who run a flower shop, but as long as it's well-written, I'll see it and I'll enjoy it.  So often these days it's about the pitch, but there are many things that I love dearly where the premise turned me off, but great story-telling won me over (off the top of my head, Finding Nemo and The West Wing).  Conversely, that are fabulous premises that have completely alienated me with bad writing (I'm looking at you, 24).

Rian Johnson seems to understand this.  This is why he can take such wacky story ideas and turn them into fully-fleshed stories with compelling characters and strong narratives.  Indeed, an overarching theme of The Brothers Bloom is the value (and potential profit) of a well-written story, best summarized by Bloom, who is quoting his brother:

"There are no unwritten lives, only badly-written ones."

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