dir: Rian Johnson
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Rian Johnson’s first film, Brick, was a noir crime drama worthy of the pen of Raymond Chandler, set in a high school. The dialogue sounded strange in the mouths of actors playing children, but it had style, and a commitment to its set-up that never wavered, perhaps to the flick’s detriment, but no matter.
When I heard that he was making a film about two con artist brothers, I was pleased. Pleased was an understatement. I was ecstatic. For reasons that make no sense, I felt glad that a guy who struggled, fought and agonised over making a flick with no budget (which is what happened with Brick) was getting the chance to move up in the moviemaking hierarchy, and was getting to make more flicks.
I’m still glad he’s making movies, watching Brothers Bloom hasn’t diminished that, but I realise he’s got a fair way to go as a director as long as his films require actors.
Listen to me, offering unsolicited advice to a director who’s achieved stuff I’ve never dreamed of and will never get close to creatively and professionally. How generous of me to criticise him and offer tidbits of wisdom.
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the performances in this flick are what let the film down, which otherwise is a sporadically amusing, wry kind of romantic comedy, for lack of a better term. The script is okay, the dialogue is okay, I guess, the plot is okay, but the performances were just awkward and seemed to come from actors who just couldn’t settle into a groove with each other. For all that it looks like a quirky Wes Anderson-esque flick, replete with affectations and uniforms, the acting doesn’t match the story.
When it comes down to it, maybe I’m imagining it, or maybe I’m making too much of it, but I couldn’t really buy that Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody were brothers, or that Rachel Weisz’s character was a wealthy American heiress who’d grown up in complete seclusion. I know that Brody can give mediocre performances, having seen a few of them, but really it felt like the director wasn’t sure how to get them to do what he wanted them to do, or what the script required. Sure, Brody as Bloom was able to look like a depressed and hollow Victorian-era gentleman thief staring with melancholy off into the distant horizons of the Dalmatian Coast, but when he was talking, or fighting the urge to smile in completely inappropriate sections, it kind of shattered the willing suspension of disbelief thing they were trying to generate.
I still like it though, still like the way everything was crafted and put together by someone who knows how to put something like this together, like the elaborate con that it is, and the cons the brothers live for.
The brothers, orphaned at a young age, become grifters par excellence early on due to Stephen (Ruffalo) discovering that he has a talent for putting together all the stages of complex and elaborate scams. Bloom (Brody) discovers that he only knows what to do or how to act when he is playing a part in one of Stephen’s cons. Without them he is completely inert and passive, and helpless. In his brother Bloom’s words, Stephen creates elaborate scams the way dead Russians (presumably Tolstoy as opposed to Nabakov, Bulgakov or Lenin) wrote novels, with multiple characters, plot arcs, character development and psychological depth and complexity. He is explaining all this to a girl, disillusioned as he is at the end of every con, due to the fact that he now has no purpose to his existence, and feels it keenly.
Like too many flicks about cons and heists, the premise rests on a disillusioned criminal who wants out of the ‘life’, who’s compelled to perform ‘one last job’. The difference is that Bloom isn’t sick of the criminal endeavours, he’s sick of adopting a persona that is artificial, and discarding it at the end of a con, knowing that underneath it all, he’s empty.
So naturally he has to have that long-time standby conversation with his brother expressed his mounting disgust with the fact that he is perpetually living a “written life”, and he would rather not.
Stephen, being the perpetually smiling know-it-all, who literally knows everything that’s going to happen before it happens because he’s scripted virtually everything, contrives to lure Bloom back with the possibility of one last scam that will leave their decades of collaboration complete, and the brothers, and their assistant Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) will then go their separate ways.
Being their last ‘score’, it has to be the biggest and most elaborate. The confusion, for Bloom, but not the audience, is how many layers there are to the scam, and what the scam’s ultimately objective is.
Stephen sets it up so that it seems like they are trying to scam some money out of a lonely heiress called Penelope (Rachel Weisz), which gets more and more complicated even at the tentative stages. But then it takes on an international playing field, and the lines between the scam and reality become inextricably blurred, to the point where even Bloom can’t tell what is real-real, and what is Stephen’s script for Bloom’s life.
Therein lies the true deception. If you, like me, are somewhat versed in the lore of the scam, as in, you’ve seen a fair few films about con artists, you know as an audience member, as someone who’s seen the wheels within wheels and the levels above the levels the characters generally know about, you know there’s always at least one more scam being perpetrated. Or at least you suspect it.
It puts you in a curious position as a viewer, because you’re doubting what you’re seeing even as you’re suspending belief to accept that it is happening within the context of a story. We know that the wolf is pretending to be grandma in Little Red Riding Hood’s tale of woe, even as we’re accepting that a wolf can talk and dress up like an old woman.
So, ultimately, is the deception upon Bloom, his lady love heiress, played like an idiot/savant Asperger’s sufferer by Weisz, or upon us? Because isn’t Stephen really just a stand in for the author, in this case, the person who wrote and directed the flick? Not necessarily in the literal sense, but at least in the metafictional sense, isn’t he the creator of a story that becomes real if people believe it? Bloom is Stephen’s brother, but also a character in his elaborate charades, Penelope is a ‘real’ person drawn in to fall for the charade, yet elects to keep believing it even when she figures (or is told) that it’s all a scam, in fact her finding out is part of the scam, but she elects to believe the story as written, to choose to live it as if it is real. And how would she know the difference anyway, since she’s a fictional character choosing to believe a fictional scam that’s fictional whether it’s really true or only seems true?
It’s doing my fucking head in just trying to figure out not the plot, but what the multiple levels of subtext or metatext possibly could mean. I should stop before I get an aneurysm.
The scam itself begins with a contrived seemingly chance encounter between Bloom on a bike and Penelope badly driving her Lamborghini. Even though everything that flows from then on seems to be a mixture of the random and the planned, it’s all part of the plan. This continues up until the seemingly random denouement in Mexico, which Stephen keeps referring to ominously in order to keep Bloom focussed. But from there, events become ‘real’ to an extent that Bloom can no longer ignore, seeing as occurrences no longer seem coordinated, and real danger seems to have replaced people playing roles.
He’s gone from being an actor in a play on a stage that is the world, to no longer knowing what the lines are in a real drama. It’s not a stretch to say that the author of the scam is trying to compel Bloom to bloom, so he can live. He desperately wants to live in an unscripted world, but he’s incapable of writing his own drama. Will he be able to act at all after the scam’s last page of dialogue is read?
The flick is not a drama really, nor a comedy, nor a heist/caper flick, but it genially blends elements of all three, perhaps not in the most convincing ways. Bang Bang, the explosive / pyro expert / girl Friday, gets only two words of dialogue, but delivers most of her comedic moments through gestures and sly body language, like her less than subtle attempts to sniff Bloom’s fingers after his first ‘special’ night with Penelope, or her general kooky behaviour. I thought she was quite funny, and her two words of dialogue are delivered perfectly at the perfect time when something regarding a tiny amount of explosives seems to go hellishly wrong.
Sure, something this convoluted and self-referential seems awfully pretentious, but I found it enjoyable, even if most of the performances were a bit off. The musical choices, the offbeat humour, the deliberately dated clothing and artistic motifs, the curious way in which complexity begets more complexity all seems worthwhile ultimately, even as I gritted my teeth in some moments. It’s not a flick for everyone, in fact, I’m amazed it ever got a cinematic release, because I can’t imagine how you market something like this to a mass market without going to extreme lengths to misrepresent it, “It’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels crossed with Driving Miss Daisy, the feel good hit of the summer!”
But it was all right. You’d hate it, but it was all right.
7 times the scam within a scam within a scam stuff only ultimately works when there’s something at stake, and it never really felt like there was here out of 10
“I have at different times in my life, sold sand to an Arab and ice to an Eskimo.” – The Brothers Bloom.