Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom is a delightfully nimble little movie, zipping and bobbing and weaving along for 113 deliciously enjoyable minutes and going down with the ease of an ice cream sundae. It is Johnson's follow-up to the marvelous Brick, and is about as much of a 180-degree turn as you could ask for; there's a touch of hardboiled dialogue ("Eat your waffles, fat man"), but it is nonetheless dazzling to see a filmmaker switch so deftly from a bleak neo-noir thriller to a sunny, joyous romp like this.
We meet confidence men Stephen and Bloom as young orphans, in an inspired (if Magnolia-ccentric) opening sequence that lays out how they came into the con game. We catch up with them twenty years later, still playing the same roles; Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the mastermind, the planner, while Bloom (Adrien Brody) acts the roles but is perpetually unhappy and looking for a way out. They've been joined by a third--demolition artist "Bang Bang" (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel). Stephen convinces Bloom to come in on one last big job (will there ever be a con or heist movie about the first big job?), in which the mark is Penelope Stamp (the radiant Rachel Weisz), a beautiful and ridiculously rich New Jersey shut-in.
It sounds like a pat set-up, but Johnson's script is wickedly smart and comes at the story from all sorts of sideways angles, which keeps the audience on its toes. Most interestingly, it provides Johnson countless opportunities for broad laughs; I expected funny lines (and even the throwaways--"Is this a '78 Caddy? Controversial choice."--are good), but as a director, Johnson shows off a terrific knack for visual comedy. He always frames his shots for the maximum comedic effect (there are as many great background gags as in a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie), and the fast cuts are perfectly timed; in the scene, for example, where Penelope explains to Bloom that she "collects hobbies" and he asks if any of them are interesting, we start laughing in the pause before the montage of her playing ping-pong and juggling and break-dancing, primarily because we're so in tune with the film, and then we laugh again at the montage itself.
But he doesn't just play for laughs, either. There are occasional twinges of lush romanticism (as in the lovely scene where Penelope and Bloom dance to "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You"), and the script takes the brother dynamic seriously (sometimes heartbreakingly so). Johnson also has a lot of fun with the conventions of the caper movie--his long con is air-tight, if a little too drawn out, which becomes a bit of a problem in the third act.
Indeed, it is a disappointment to report that The Brothers Bloom doesn't end quite as strongly as it begins. An important scene of confession between Bloom and Penelope ends before we have a chance to gauge her reaction--Johnson (or his editor) make the crucial mistake of presuming that we're more interested in what he's feeling than in what she is. Shortly thereafter, it careens into the expected series of plot twists and double-crosses, and while they're certainly executed gracefully, they're expected all the same. And they have the same result as these sorts of piled-on turns often do: we stop being emotionally invested in the story, because it's all turning out to be a put-on anyway. That said, once the twists are done, the final sequence has a genuine (and unexpected) bit of real and effective emotion.
Weisz is absolutely warm and winning in what amounts to the leading role; she swings effortlessly from giddy enthusiasm to heartbreaking pathos (her deliberate reaction early in the film to Brody telling her she looks nice is a perfect little moment, an indulgence that this viewer was thankful for). Brody is an actor that I've never been particularly enamored of (he's never bad, but he's always just kind of there); his work here is good and occasionally inspired. Ruffalo is terrific; this is a perfect vehicle for his rakish, loopy charm, and he has a great time chewing on some whiz-bang dialogue ("I don't like to simplistically vilify an entire country, but Mexico's a horrible place"). Kikuchi says, I believe, one word of English (and not much more than that in any language), but she has a marvelous presence, and her skill for pantomime is legitimately reminiscent of Chaplin or Harpo Marx.
The tight close-ups and flashy dolleys of Steve Yedlin's photography keep things moving nicely, as does Gabriel Wrye's smooth editing and Nathan Johnson's brassy score. But ultimately, it's Johnson's show. This is his coming-out party as a director, exciting proof that Brick was no fluke. He's a born filmmaker--even if he hasn't quite figured out how to avoid the traps of this picture's genre.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The Brothers Bloom isn't the most richly saturated film (Johnson and Yedlin mostly work in a muted color palate), but the 2.39:1 image has a nicely lush quality and a lovely, golden glow about it. The 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC transfer is smooth and pleasing, vividly dimensional and textured. Hot whites are occasionally blown out, but black levels, particularly in the night shots on the deck of the steamer ship, are rich and inky, and the closing scene is so lovingly pastoral, you want to put it up on your wall.
The robust DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is as nimble and zippy as the film itself. Johnson's score jangles all over the soundstage, while directional effects are nicely placed and panned. The occasional gunshots and "Bang-Bang"'s explosions are sharp, and lend some oomph to the LFE channel. Some of the quieter dialogue (particularly Brody's) is a touch difficult to discern, requiring a bit of volume jockeying, but that's just about the only complaint I can muster up for this fine lossless mix.
The disc also includes a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, as well as English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Writer/director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman contribute a chatty, funny, and illuminating Audio Commentary. Johnson is a good talker with plenty to say about his picture, and he wisely comes to the recording session with a back-up plan: questions to answer in the track solicited from Twitter (a reference that he acknowledges will date the commentary about as badly as if he'd made Friendster references on the Brick track). Bergman has less to say, but proves a good foil for the filmmaker.
Three sequences are examined in the very cool "From Sketch to Celluloid" (12:29), a comparison of Johnson's original sketches (which, he confesses, look like "a three-year-old drew them") to the production storyboards to the finished film; all three are seen simultaneously in a split-screen configuration. "In Bloom: Behind the Scenes" (14:37) is a more-artful-than-average making-of featurette--there's no soundbite-spewing talking heads, no hyperbolic narration, just some moments from the set, so impeccably shot and arranged that the piece almost works as a kind of abstract short film. The 20 Deleted Scenes (32:48) can be viewed with or without audio commentary by Johnson; all are interesting, though none are really missed (with the exception of an outstanding monologue by Robbie Coltrane). And a few more storyboard-to-screen comparisons are seen in the Image Gallery (3:21).
Happily, The Brothers Bloom more than holds up to repeat viewings; indeed, I found the plot machinations and minor third-act stumbles to be less troublesome the second time around, while the breezy tone and whimsical humor remain entirely effective. It's a truly charming picture.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.