Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Movie Log: The Brothers Bloom

There's one brother named Bloom in The Brothers Bloom -- the other one is named Stephen -- which is only the first odd and confusing thing about this film. (It's self-consciously artsy enough that I feel compelled to call it a "film" rather than a "movie.") The two brothers are con men, as we learn when we see them as boys in the pre-credit sequence, learning their trade.

The next odd and confusing thing about The Brothers Bloom is the question of when, exactly, it's set. The characters wear clothes that are mostly inspired by the '20s and '30s -- black suits and hats for our heroes, similarly classy and non-contemporary looks for the rest -- and take steamships to cross the Atlantic. But there's a conspicuously modern sports car, and other touches make it clear that this is not set in the past. Perhaps it's set in some alternate world, or just a more stylish version of our world. Perhaps the movie itself is a complicated con game?

After those oddities, the rest of Brothers Bloom's stylish touches -- such as Bang Bang, the Japanese girlfriend/sidekick of Stephen, who says, I believe, precisely two words of dialogue in the course of the movie, or the semi-etched-on-glass, semi-scrawled-on-slips-of-paper occasional intertitles -- go down easily. Brothers Bloom is a movie confident in itself, and one that knows how to tell a story. It knows, for example, that if you do something repeatedly, you really should do it three and exactly three times. It knows that good stories set things up carefully, and then leave it up to the audience to recognize the payoffs. And it knows, most of all, that what we want is to watch fascinating people doing interesting things.

This is a story about con men and their cons, so it wouldn't do to talk too much about the plot. There are surprises and grace notes, cons revealed and cons left assumed, gunfire and explosions, fire and fake blood and real blood. Stephen and Bloom are young in the pre-credit sequence, and in their late thirties in the main plot of the movie -- Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) fully in possession of his powers as a storyteller and artist in confidence, Bloom (Adrien Brody) conflicted, depressed, and perpetually threatening to go straight. And Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is a gorgeous, vastly wealthy young woman whom they come into contact with.

Brothers Bloom is a deeply self-consciously stylish movie, very much in love with itself as a storytelling vehicle -- note, just for one example, how those three main characters are lightly borrowed from Joyce's Ulysses -- and it lives up to its own image of itself almost entirely. All the flash and stage patter does make it a primarily superficial movie; the emotional truths here are all familiar ones, so as not to detract from the glitter and shine. The ending reaches for emotional depth, but doesn't quite achieve it -- Brothers Bloom had spent too much time being slick and witty to be able to stretch that far back in the other direction -- but it is fitting and poignant, which is good enough. Brothers Bloom is a quite good con-man movie, for all the fact that it's trying so very hard to completely transcend being a con-man movie in the first place.

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