Some movies only trigger extreme responses in viewers. Films like this divide their audiences into squabbling tribes unable to compromise their entrenched opinions of whether the film is indisputably great or unrepentant in its failure to do anything but enrage. Typically, the smaller group’s ardor is enough to irritate the already annoyed larger group of filmgoers who remain untouched by the film’s charms. The Brothers Bloom is like that. You’ll seldom meet someone who just thinks it’s all right. They’ll either sing its praises in a melody so vociferous as to be cloying, or they’ll scoff and use the word “twee” a lot.

Look, The Brothers Bloom is more than a little twee. It pops a hard 7.7 on the Wes Anderson/Belle and Sebastian Scale, but that’s less by design than the unfortunate confluence of its influences. You make any sort of Venn diagram that includes Paper Moon in either hemisphere and some stylistic tics are just unavoidable. The more I’ve revisited the film, however, the more I’m struck by how much these slight tonal concerns turn people off from enjoying the narrative. No less an authority than Roger fucking Ebert called the movie “too smug,” which is such a strange way to characterize a film with this much heart. Until Episode VIII drops and shocks the world, I think it’s safe to say The Brothers Bloom is the best film Rian Johnson has ever made.

In order to appreciate this movie, you have to have a bit of a thing for con men, or at least the cinematic exploration of con men. As a genre, movies based around cons tend to be either slick and extravagant, like the Ocean’s Eleven movies, or stark and malicious, like David Mamet’s House of Games. Though heavily influenced by the structure of the latter, Johnson lets his long game unfold within a world that feels more storybook than back alley, hence the Ricky Jay-narrated prologue and visual style owing more to Hergé’s Tintin than anything written by Donald Westlake. His choice to focus the story around a pair of brothers, played with such brio and pathos by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, places the movie into fairytale territory, but that mishmash of tone is what makes it so unique.

The premise is simple and the machinations of the plot are easy enough to follow. Stephen (Ruffalo) orchestrates elaborate cons like a writer. He builds stories where everyone gets what they want, including the storytellers (himself and brother Bloom, played by Brody) and their audience, the marks they’re essentially robbing. His rationale that the victims get such a transformative adventure out of the ordeal lessens the sting that they’re just thieves who wear nice hats. In Stephen’s world, the cons are like a saccharine version of David Fincher’s The Game. The end of the con that begins the film feels more like a cut scene from an Indiana Jones movie than, say, The Spanish Prisoner. (It’s also a far cry from Lindsay Crouse shooting Joe Mantegna at an airport.)

Bloom wants to retire from this profession. As the star of all of his brother’s stories, he’s living a life where he’s always a character. Stephen convinces him to help with One Last Score (the greatest of all conman tropes) and the movie is smart enough to not hide from you what’s plainly apparent to Bloom. This con, centered on an eccentric rich woman named Penelope (Rachel Weisz), in some way is designed to give Bloom the “happy ending” Stephen’s given so many marks beforehand. This hiding in plain sight makes the proceedings even more layered with doubt and mistrust, as you’re watching someone run a con while absolutely certain they themselves are also being conned. It creates concentric circles of reality and deception that lend dramatic weight to every single scene.

It’s a con movie, so there are twists and turns and all of the usual shit, but that central conceit—that Stephen just wants to write a happy ending for his brother—is so touching. It’s also self-referential as hell, mirroring the kind of metacinematic themes Christopher Nolan has spent his entire career crafting. Whereas Nolan’s crystalline calculation puts a harsh distance between his stories and the viewer, Johnson blocks everything like a bedtime story and gets you to let your guard down. By laying his schemes so bare, his writing lets you feel like you’re so smart for being aware of the tropes playing out that you focus on every twist and turn instead of the real meat of Bloom’s relationships with his brother and Penelope.

“You’re too scared to run off into the sunset,” Stephen tells Bloom. “…because real sunsets might be beautiful, but they turn into dark, uncertain nights.” Modern audiences often reject films that ask them to play along with a bright world drenched in magical realism, so they settle for cynicism as a shield. Bloom would rather abandon his brother and the life they’ve shared to sit alone, miserable, a drunk, than to trust in the abilities that have shielded and protected him since childhood. The film’s conclusion is a bittersweet one, the rare happy ending that feels legitimately earned. It reinforces the power of storytelling and the generosity of the people who sacrifice themselves in the telling.

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One Comment

  1. Leonard

    April 19, 2016 at 8:24 am

    hey, great review. loved the film as well. heart, story, characters plus a brilliant score – perfect. will be hard to top that with star wars, although he did a couple of amazing breaking bad episodes didn’t he. enjoyed the hell out of brick, looper not so much.

    Reply

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