Why do we tell stories? What compels a writer or a filmmaker to tell a story and why do these stories become so intrinsically important to the audience? Writer and Director Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, attempts to understand the relationship that stands between the storyteller and their audience through the prism of the con man movie and finds it in the relationship between two brothers.
The film stars Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo as brothers who have conned and swindled people since they were little kids being bumped around from foster home to foster home. Stephen, played by Ruffalo, is the brains behind the operation, crafting rich, intricate stories where in the end, even the mark gets away with what they really wanted. In a sense, Ruffalo’s character is Johnson’s stand-in for himself; the filmmaker, the storyteller looking to please everyone, especially himself. Bloom, played by Brody, is the hapless go-alonger who has always only played a part in Stephen’s schemes to the extent where he’s having his own identity crisis. This leads to their big last con; swindling an eccentric heiress (played by Rachel Weisz) out of her millions, who of course Bloom ends up falling for.
From the outset, Johnson builds a world of incredible detail and bright colors, giving off an almost Wes Anderson-esque feel to the whole thing except with a much more natural feeling to it. As opposed to the almost overly precise frames of an Anderson movie, Johnson’s world feels lived in and real, even when events take place that stretch that reality its limits.
The film starts with a little prologue narrated by Ricky Jay in which our two main characters orchestrate their first con and it inevitably sets up much of the tone and themes of the rest of the movie and it’s a rich, amazing sequence that really sets what this film is in its incredibly quirky, ornate details (such as why are little ten year old boys wearing bowler hats?) but setting it in a world that feels conducive to that. The central conceits of why these brothers are con men, why Stephen has orchestrated these long, elaborate cons, ones in which everyone gets what they want as he so eloquently puts it at many different points throughout and Bloom’s utter disappointment in leading lives of such fiction, are set out and laid bare and the film never drifts from these points.
One can almost feel like this would be a detriment but the story that is told is one of such wonder, fun, and excitement that the viewer becomes whisked away on their journey as well. You could almost forget that there is a con going on at all, as they whisk Weisz away on an adventure stretching across Europe to Prague and ending on the beaches of Mexico.
Weisz is an absolute delight throughout the movie as a woman shuttered away from life and with a complete inability to socialize. As she comes more and more out of her shell and becomes more excited for the adventures that await, that excitement and innocence almost becomes contagious. Much of that has to be credited to Weisz giving such an absolutely fun and winning performance and giving the character who could’ve been endlessly insufferable with her quirks a very relatable human side.
Adrian Brody is perfectly fine as the vulnerable, emotionally fragile half of the Brothers Bloom, basically the heart at center of the movie, but Ruffalo is the one having the most fun of the pair acting as a carnival showman, putting on a show for his small but rewarding audience. Ruffalo gives off a sense of seamless ease into the role, an orchestrator of organized mayhem and chaos; a storyteller enjoying the fruits of his labor.
My favorite character easily, however, has to be Boom Boom played with a grace of comic timing by Rinko Kikuchi. Stephen and Bloom’s silent associate, Boom Boom says so much while saying basically nothing at all and with just a few hand gestures and sideways glances, gives a great supporting comedic performance.
Probably the great flaw of this otherwise fine follow up to the utterly superb Brick, is that Johnson has set out to make a film of such airy, light fun that things almost feel too inconsequential. This could be considered slightly spoilerish territory so you might not want to read the rest of this paragraph. When in the end, things get almost too real, it feels like a different movie altogether. The film ends on a happy note but with such a despairing overtone, that it becomes a complete tonal shift from the light, fluffy caper movie that’s been playing before it. Not that it rings false, but the shift comes abruptly and the audience is never really prepared for it.
It’s a movie as personal as anything could possibly be to a storyteller. Underneath the light, caper romantic comedy that Rian Johnson has so effortlessly created, there is also a filmmaker reacting to his audience and laying out not just why he tells stories but why we love being a part of these stories so much. The relationship between audience and storyteller is not so far off from the relationship between the mark and a con man.
While Brick was the more masterful stroke of genius in every which way, Johnson takes the incredibly increased budget he has with this one and tells an even more personal story here. One in which we are all marks in our own little con games. The magic of the movie rests in Ruffalo standing center stage unraveling a story so perfect that it almost becomes true, the wish of any excited moviegoer.
Side note about the names: At the beginning of the film, the brothers are introduced as Stephen and Bloom. But they are called in the film the Brothers Bloom. So is Bloom their last name too? Is Adrian Brody’s character’s name actually Bloom Bloom much like the Super Mario Bros. main character Mario Mario? This left me incredibly confused for a good portion during the beginning of the movie until I just kind of eventually went along with it.