Monday, June 22, 2009

Pros and cons: The Brothers Bloom

Wayfaring grifters, the brothers Stephen Bloom and just plain old Bloom—the latter presumably having lost his given name in a Polynesian poker game, or perhaps while convalescing from ennui in some Alpine hospice—have toured the world in search of ever-more risk-courting and inventive cons, but the lifestyle’s no good anymore for Little Bloom and hasn’t been for some time. He wants out, but is persuaded into the proverbial one-last-big-score by his tireless elder. Their ultimate mark is a lonesome and preposterously wealthy heiress with a fantastical, perhaps autistic penchant for collecting and perfecting hobbies, making her something like all of the Tenenbaum children rolled into one. Over the course of our story she’ll inevitably move from being a surprisingly formidable victim to a brilliant accomplice.

That reference to
The Royal Tenenbaums just sort of slipped out, but it’s tough not to let such references accumulate when trying to describe Brick writer/director Rian Johnson’s second feature, which has been crafted top to bottom with the sort of cutesy comic pageantry and fraternal drama which Wes Anderson has made his domain for well over a decade now and with considerable success. The Brothers Bloom has been craftily titled so that it ends with both a surname and a verb, though, despite the avalanche of plot and the truly magnificent efforts of its actors, it’s hard to say if anyone or anything truly blooms here since the movie itself is often so stiflingly manicured as to preempt anything so spontaneous as discovery. Right from the prologue, which finds the Blooms as children already working elaborate ruses and dressing themselves as Amish undertakers, which ends with a prematurely cathartic slow-motion climax, replete with exultant Rod Stewart bursting through the speakers and an explosive announcement of the film’s title spelled out in lights, we’re meant to feel really excited about what we’re seeing –even before its even properly begun!

The casting is ideal. Maybe too ideal. Adrien Brody brings the same melancholic amiability, uncertainty and romantic longing to Bloom as he did to Peter Whitman in… Wes Anderson’s
The Darjeeling Limited. His scarecrow physique seems custom-built for heroes who wilt like a frail weed when they suffer but are just as easily swept up in the winds of an exuberant game plan. As Stephen, Mark Ruffalo is all charm, and I mean all. He’s so charming it seems he could con himself right out of existence. (He’s also one of my favourite screen actors to watch eat.) Rachel Weisz as Penelope, the mark, is so damn good that she frequently makes what should be an annoying artifice of a character into a gas, walking with the gait of a 12-year-old who hasn’t yet figured out she has the body of a rather fetching and shapely thirtysomething woman. Robby Coltrane arrives on the scene to ham it up with absolute mastery. Sadly, Rinko Kikuchi, who didn’t get to talk in her Oscar-nominated performance as a deaf teen in Babel, still doesn’t get to talk while playing Stephen’s sidekick, a demolitions nut rendered as a tired stereotype of mute Japanese cool.

So we’ve got terrific actors, a dazzling and diverse array of locations, and a little Asian girl who wears kooky costumes and lives to blow shit up. We’re having fun! Or so we’re often reminded. With it’s deluge of sight gags—Penelope’s casual smashing of her car into a brick wall is admittedly a real winner—and shower of winky literary nods, there’s an eagerness to impress on display throughout The Brothers Bloom that most of us can’t help but feel kindly to, the way we might indulge some precocious kid who just can’t wait to show you her entire collection of rare stamps or, more fittingly, magic tricks. Narrated by magician Ricky Jay, The Brothers Bloom is finally an ode to the pleasures of getting fooled, of slight of hand and fast fingers. But the hand guiding this tale is too slight by half, giving us a good enough time when its all just a lark, but fumbling things up when he expects us to invest more deeply in the emotional journeys. I’d have been content with mere showmanship.

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