If you listen to a lot of podcasts like I do, then you’ve more than likely heard of Rian Johnson, a promising young director who’s developed an impressive web presence. Johnson’s first movie was a film called Brick, which took all the style and lingo of film noir and pulp novels and places them into a high school setting. I thought Brick was a neat little film but I wasn’t wildly thrilled by it, it was a well made movies with a concept that was sort of fun, but it was a pretty shallow movie. Now Rian Johnson is back, and with a bigger budget and a cast full of name actors to make a film called The Brothers Bloom.
The elder of the two Blooms is Stephen Bloom (Mark Ruffalo) and the younger Bloom is known only as Bloom (Adrien Brody), and he’s the one we follow through the movie for the most part. These two brothers are con men and have been for years. They take part in elaborate “long cons” that take them all over the world and usually seem to end with Adrian Brody pretending to get shot. Their partner in crime is a mysterious Japanese woman known only as Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) who loves explosives and speaks very little English. Brody’s character has grown tired of this life and wants to retire but, to quote the third Godfather film, just when he thought he was out, his brother pulled him back in. The two plan to pull off one last con, the mark is a Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) a rich young woman with no direction in life. The plan is to tell Stamp they are smugglers and have her take part in their smuggling endeavors, thus giving her the adventure she wants but ending that adventure by ripping her off. The only problem is that Brody’s character is beginning to really like this girl.
Probably this film’s best asset is its cast who in many ways elevate a lot of this material. The standout is probably Mark Ruffalo, who’s a character actor that I shouldn’t underestimate as often as I seem to. With his performance here Ruffalo is able to balance the way his character tends to be likable while behaving like a bit of a fox. Brody also works here, I really like how that guy is able to do leading man performances without feeling like a phony movie star. Rachel Weisz is also pretty effectively charming, she’s doing sort of a giddy Natalie Portman kind of role here and she makes her character a lot more believable than it should be. Rinko Kikuchi is also a pretty neat little mysterious presence and there are also neat little parts here for Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell. They even manage to bring Ricky Jay in as the narrator, an appropriate choice if ever there was one.
The problem here is that this movie is way too clever for its own good. Rian Johnson is basically trying to make an anti-con man con man movie. Deciding that it is too predictable to have yet another one of these movies where one of the characters turns out to be playing everyone the whole time, he’s decided to play with that trope. The problem is that instead to reducing some of the trickery, he’s kept all the double and triple crosses and added extra meta-junk to the proceedings, and the result is a bit of a mess. The movie forces us to deal both with the crazy plot while also having to contend with the Adrian Brody characters lightweight existential crisis and the relationships between everyone, I’m not sure Rian Johnson really knew which of these elements he wanted to emphasize and the movie suffers for it.
The other elephant that’s in the room is that Rian Johnson has ripped off Wes Anderson’s style from head to foot. This style theft is undeniable and Johnson seems completely unapologetic about it. This is problematic on many levels, not the least because Wes Anderson movies are getting tired enough when the real McCoy is making them without the imitators diluting the style further. It’s not just the bright visual style and use of classic rock that contributes to this either, the script also fits into the Wes Anderson mold pretty neatly with its use of twenty-something angst set against a playful adventure story in a whimsical environment. The pathos of these movies is beginning to feel pretty insincere and the comical quirks are quickly going from being charming to being obnoxious. I’m just really tired of seeing movies that have the tone of comedies without the laughs and that’s increasingly what these Wes Andersonian movies are beginning to boil down to.
Rian Johnson is a promising filmmaker but he needs to stop trying to hide behind his cleverness and just tell a damn story. This movie is able to pass the time well enough but it amounts to nothing and I found the ending to be pretty unsatisfying both on an emotional level and as the end to a con. There are worse ways to spend two hours, but this is a movie without weight that I will quickly be forgetting about.
** out of four