The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson’s follow up to his 2005 film-noir-set-in-high-school Brick, has a tough act to follow. Brick sparkled with the incongruous, yet somehow perfectly appropriate, juxtaposition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bespectacled teenager spouting Bogart-isms and Lukas Haas’ malevolent ‘baddie’ having his mum offer them cookies.
Like the Coen brothers in their prime, Johnson gleefully embraced a genre and then re-invented it to glorious effect. If you haven’t seen it, track it down. Please, you won’t be sorry (and if you are, it’s only two hours. Just get up early the next day to make up for it). It’s the best high school movie since Ferris Bueller, the most enjoyable inverted detective story since The Big Lebowski, and as quotable a film as anything Kevin Smith or Mike Judge have come up withNot much to live up to, then?
The Brothers Bloom tries a similar thing to that extraordinary debut, taking a staple of cinema, this time the con movie, and diving right in without ever coming up for air. It harks back to The Sting, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or David Mamet’s long line of cinematic forays into the world of men pulling the wool over each others’ eyes. You get the feeling Johnson has watched all those films and more, fell in love with them as he had with the films that inspired Brick, and tried to do them justice in his own way. He even has Mamet’s go-to guy Ricky Jay, a former magician, narrate the opening segment of two young brothers fleecing their school friends via a wonderfully thought out con.
It’s a spirited opening, rekindling that which made Brick so much fun, precocious kids (here even younger than Brick‘s) spouting a lexicon that belongs in the mouths of a different generation and looking good doing it.
But here’s the thing: lightning rarely strikes twice and here it just misses the mark. Bloom is studded with great moments that don’t quite add up, a film awash with great visual touches that hide what’s really missing: characters you can really believe in.
After that quirky and lively opening, we fast forward to the brothers all grown up, Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen and Adrien Brody’s Bloom (does that mean his name is Bloom Bloom?). They’ve spent their lives pulling fast ones and raiding the pockets of unsuspecting victims, although they’re greeted with such fanfare wherever they go (‘hey, it’s the brothers Bloom!’) that it’s a wonder anyone could fail to recognise them for what they are. (You could put Roger Moore’s Bond in a clown outfit and he’d be less obvious. Oh, wait ….)
Aided by their mute assistant Bang Bang (Babel‘s Rinko Kikuchi) and a French man called The Curator (Robbie Coltrane with a wavering accent), their latest target is Rachel Weisz’s eccentric recluse Penelope, a plan that hits something of a snag when Bloom falls for her.
And so, Johnson sets out on two paths: a beautiful, but oddly hollow, homage to con movies and a slow-burning romance between Bloom and Penelope, the latter enlivened by a lively, tender performance by Weisz. She has to work hard to overcome her too-quirky-for-its-own-good introduction as a woman so lonely she’s mastered more skills than a circus performer, but when she does, The Brothers Bloom strikes a rich vein of Wes Anderson-style comedy and heartfelt romance.
Ruffalo and Brody try to keep up with her, but they’re too laid back and laconic, lacking the energy and humanity that Joseph Gordon-Levitt brought to Brick. Johnson paints them in broad strokes, giving them problems and obstacles but no real heart, leaving their journey simply a colourful romp that isn’t all that engaging. Come the film’s twisty climax, not only is it difficult to work out who’s being conned and by whom, it’s pretty hard to care much about it.
You can’t fault the effort from all those involved (indeed, it’s hard not to admire it), and there are moments here that mark out Johnson as a filmmaker with an eye as wonderful as his ear for dialogue was in his debut. But where Brick shone, The Brothers Bloom can only muster the occasional glow.
The Brothers Bloom opens in UK cinemas on June 4th.