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    The Brothers Bloom

    Game boys

    "The Brothers Bloom," a pretty clever movie about the adventures of two con-man brothers, works hard to amaze you — harder than it should.


    I kind of wish I hadn't read Slate's article on the pervasiveness of Wes Anderson before seeing "The Brothers Bloom" — not that the article wasn't good, but it makes it hard to see Rian Johnson's new movie without feeling like he cribbed it.

    Written and directed by: Rian Johnson.
    Cast: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell, Ricky Jay, Zachary Gordon, Max Records.
    Cinematography: Steve Yedlin.
    Edited by: Gabriel Wrye.
    Music by: Nathan Johnson.

    Related links: Official site
    Angelika Film Center
    18 West Houston at Mercer St.
    Bam Rose
    30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn
    (718) 636-4100
    AMC Empire 25
    234 West 42nd St.

    Johnson's debut movie, "Brick," was all his own. A modern film noir set in a high school, it was a movie that at face value sounds like it would turn into a sitcom but was in fact perfectly sincere and perfectly made, never slipping, never breaking the pretense of hard-boiled adolescence.

    "The Brothers Bloom" is clever, energetic, affable, and yet just a tiny bit stale. Yes, that's partly because of the affectless Wes Anderson look and mood (and the "Pushing Daisies" intro), but there's something else slightly awry.

    The story is about two fraternal, globe-trotting con men who have been hoodwinking others since childhood. What makes this different from any other con-men movie? Well, nothing, except it has this over-the-top kinda literary sheen to it. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), the thinking half of the Blooms, sketches out the most elaborate money-thieving plots. "He writes cons like the Russians write novels," the other brother, just called Bloom (Adrien Brody), gushes. "With thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit."

    And yet, after half a lifetime of larks, Bloom now feels there's something missing in his life and he wants out. Stephen, with his constant stratagems, may have shepherded him well, but he has decided he wants to live "an unwritten life." That life seems to consist of getting drunk in decadent solitude in Mallorca, where nobody will ever find him.

    The Brothers Bloom  
    Of course, Stephen does find him, and of course, as in any cop or con movie, when one partner just wants to retire, there is one last job.

    The one job has to do with a beyond-wealthy, childlike, orphaned, hermit heiress in a New Jersey mansion named Penelope (Rachel Weisz), who is supposed to fall in love with Bloom, follow the two of them around Europe, cough up a million dollars, and think she's having the time of her life. Penelope has grown up solitary but whimsical. When Bloom asks what she does, she says, "I collect hobbies. I see people doing interesting things, and then I get books and learn them."

    Penelope sees the Blooms doing an interesting thing — antique smugglers is what they've told her they are, or used to be — and decides to follow them around the world doing it. Stephen has written out one of his most elaborate schemes, and they're off. But who's playing whom? Is his scheme the real scheme? Is the enthusiastic, check-writing Penelope a mark, a co-conspirator, or is she putting one over on the brothers? Is Bloom himself playing out the con according to plan, or secretly falling in love with the girl? As his brother has previously explained their many adventures to him, "They were always about you."

      The Brothers Bloom
    It's a nice jape, really, bounding from New Jersey to Prague to Mexico to Mallorca to St. Petersburg, in a time period that falls sometime between 1900 and yesterday, pulling the levers in people's hearts until they pay off in wads of dollars. It's a good yarn. It'll tickle you.

    And yet ... Rian Johnson had his own grand scheme sketched out when he made this movie, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit, and I know what the result was supposed to be. It was supposed to be magic. Magic kind of like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or "Amélie." And here's the thing about movie magic — when you're trying really, really hard to make it happen and it doesn't, then it just feels awkward.

    The film starts uncomfortably, in fact, with the story of the two brothers as conniving little boys — a tale told in verse that sometimes rhymes, but not always. It feels much like the beginning of that other overrated indie favorite, "Juno," with its ridiculous opening banter. Can it really go on like this for two hours, you ask yourself. Can I get my money back now?

    Luckily, "The Brothers Bloom" gets less false and more artful as it continues. All caper movies are fun (or they probably wouldn't get made), and this one is, let's say, not more fun than most but more self-aware about what makes a good caper. The best scams are the ones where everyone walks away with what they wanted, Stephen instructs, and that adds an extra degree of challenge to the game. It's the grift that keeps on giving. You have to draw up quite the Russian novel (or indie movie) to make that happen. So the middle act is the high point.

    The Brothers Bloom  
    The ending is pretty much the ending you would have guessed, and you don't walk out of the theater thinking, oh, what an amazing whirlwind that was. I think there are a few reasons for that.

    One: the casting. This feels like a movie that would have been better off without stars like Brody, Ruffalo and Weisz. "Brick" was a perfect example of a movie that felt more real (stylized, but in a real place and time) because it included no recognizable actors. "The Brothers Bloom," on the other hand, feels more like an exercise. You can't blame Johnson for rising in the world, and wanting to work with some of the big-time, serious, Oscar-winning actors, but they make the movie feel more like a production and less like its own reality.

    Two: The music. It's too heavy, it's too gentle, it's too slow. It's deadly serious, and it drags the film down. If this had been a Woody Allen or Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, the music would have been brisk and playful. Composer Nathan Johnson, who added a layer of mystery to "Brick," has done a disservice to "The Brothers Bloom."

    Add the problem of forced writing to that, and what you have is ... well, not a bad movie at all, but a piece of entertainment. Not magic.

    MAY 31, 2009

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