Not all outsiders are con artists, but every con artist has to be an outsider at heart. Insinuating into other people’s lives is an essential professional skill, but those who can’t step away in an instant might as well become schnooks like all the rest.
But what happens when schnookdom starts to look appealing? In Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, that professional hazard has haunted Adrien Brody pretty much from the moment he and brother Mark Ruffalo started pulling cons as kids. Trouble is, he’s awfully good at his job, and getting out may not be an option. A great sympathetic frontman, he’s the cat’s-paw of Ruffalo’s schemes, artistically honed grifts which, according to Brody, have the narrative complexity of Russian novels. They also contain some concern for Brody’s well-being, even if Brody can’t always discern it beneath the twists and turns. So when Brody is dropped into the arms of Rachel Weisz, an epileptic, accident-prone New Jersey heiress so wealthy that she keeps a series of replacement Lamborghinis on call, he isn’t sure what to think. If Ruffalo didn’t foresee that Brody would fall for their latest mark, maybe his brother isn’t that great a con man.
Johnson’s 2005 debut, Brick, wed the familiar conventions of film noir and high-school movies to create a viable, illuminating hybrid. Here, he’s upped the ambition, using a light, stylish touch and a David Mamet-inspired hall-of-mirrors plot to comment on the nature of storytelling, as it applies to fiction and the stories we use to make sense of our own lives. Ruffalo and Brody do strong work as, respectively, the unrepentant schemer and the heartbroken rogue (though the film might have worked even better with their roles reversed) and Weisz is winning as an innocent hobby collector who—after dutifully working her way through pinhole photography, DJing, martial arts, and other endeavors—has yet to find a calling. Robbie Coltrane and Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi, who does brilliant mime work as a mostly mute demolition expert named “Bang Bang,” give them able support, and the film nicely balances heartfelt moments with head games, at least for a while.
After a thrilling hour, the film starts to lose faith in its ability and gets caught in the convoluted tangles of its own plot, as the style becomes increasingly beholden to the films of Wes Anderson—stop-on-a-dime dolly shots, Cat Stevens songs and all. Johnson sets viewers up for greatness, but ultimately offers much milder pleasures. The film isn’t an outright con, but it’s easy to feel a little misled by the end.