The Brothers Bloom is a joyful little movie that glories in the art of storytelling. It's a film that makes very clear that it is a fiction—a spectacularly embellished, bedazzled fiction with little recourse to reality but a huge debt to other stories, other movies, and other myths. Like his first feature, Brick, writer/director Rian Johnson's sophomore effort is a highly stylized, heady film that is deeply influenced by cinematic history and genre storytelling. But whereas Brick was a fast-talking film noir drama set in a contemporary suburban Los Angeles high school, The Brothers Bloom is a lavish caper film that mixes conventions of everything from James Bond to Ocean's 11, all with a stylistic flair and quirky optimism that evokes Wes Anderson. Appropriate given its self-reflexive palette, the film's thematic center is the idea that life and narrative are one and the same—that we are all living out our own stories. We are spinning our own narratives. "There's no such thing as an unwritten life," says one character. "Only a badly written one."
The Brothers Bloom are a pair of con men brothers, who you would think share the last name of "Bloom." But as it turns out, "Bloom" is simply the younger brother's first name (played by Adrien Brody). Older brother is named Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), and he calls all the shots. The film opens with a charming sequence of the brothers as little boys, wearing matching bowler hats and Chaplin-esque white shirts and black coats (their fashion coordination continues throughout the film). As elementary-age swindlers hatching their first elaborate plot to con their classmates out of lunch money, we immediately get a sense of the brothers' relationship and their respective characters. Stephen is a fast-talking sophisticate who mockingly labels his peers "playground bourgeoisies" and draws elaborate flow charts and storyboards for every planned con. He lives his life like a master storyteller, and views his con jobs as stories that he must micromanage for the best dramatic and artistic effect—complete with embedded symbolism, visual puns, literary references and three-act structures. Bloom, on the other hand, is a soft-hearted player in his brother's schemes. He goes along with whatever his brother concocts, but sometimes feels the tension of having his every move and emotion dictated and storyboarded by his big brother. Bloom wants something real. He wants "an unwritten life."
These dynamics remain as the boys turn into adults and their cons become bigger and more dangerous. They are joined by a mysterious Japanese sidekick named Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) who specializes in knives, guns, explosives, and being silent and stylish. Though she never really talks in the film, Kikuchi's Bang Bang is the source of the film's biggest laughs and most memorable visuals (she has a talent for mutilating dolls with guns or plastic explosives).
For the final (supposedly) act of the Bloom Bros' con career, they decide to scam a wealthy New Jersey heiress (Rachel Weisz) named Penelope. The movie is the story of this elaborate scam, which spans the globe (from Athens to Prague to Mexico and St. Petersburg) and involves Penelope (who "collects hobbies" for fun and wrecks Lamborghinis like it's going out of style) becoming a co-conspirator. Things get messy, however, when Bloom falls in love with Penelope, who bewitches him by (among other things) her ability to perform card tricks while saying things like "The trick to not being cheated is to learn how to cheat." Bloom doesn't know if he has it in him to con such a wonderful, likeminded soul out of millions of dollars. A handful of plot twists and unexpected turns ensue, climaxing in a grandiose "is this a story or is this real?" finale appropriately held on a theater stage.
But as much as The Brothers Bloom is a plot-driven, complicated story, it is also a film that wants the audience to just sit back and luxuriate in the eye candy styling and cinematic theatrics happening on screen. And I'm not just talking about gun battles and explosions and beautiful people (which the film has plenty of). I'm talking about the details and minutia of Johnson's hyperactive storytelling style. Every shot, every set, and every mise-en-scene is chock full of fascinating, funny, and sometimes random things to look at. A passing dolly shot in a bar might catch a cameo glimpse of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (star of Brick); a dialogue scene on an outdoor bench might feature a random camel walking around in the background. The film is full of blink-or-you'll-miss-it visual puns. We see a wall mural of a man holding a gun to his head followed by a loud "bang!" as a door opens and slams shut in the middle of the mural where the gun barrel is. That kind of thing.
Sometimes the film feels a bit too much like an exercise in showy visuals and oddball hipsterisms. Some of its randomness just feels totally arbitrary and superfluous and outside the realm of any possibility, but perhaps that's the point. In a sense, Bloom is a film about how the "deception" of a fanciful film (like the deception of a heist or con) is its own sort of truth. At one point, Penelope shows Bloom a lens-less camera that she made out of a hollowed-out watermelon, and the two of them get to talking about the nature of photography and art. "It's not reproduction," Penelope says of the images her watermelon camera captures. "It's a lie about the truth. It's storytelling."
The Brothers Bloom is about twisting the truth, blurring it, spinning it, and yet ultimately expressing it in a way that it can be understood. Stephen and Bloom are never completely honest with each other (or with anyone), and yet they love each other as much as two brothers could. And the same could be said for the film itself: it's never completely forthright and leads us to believe a number of contradictory things at various points in the process. But eventually, in a roundabout manner, the truth wins out. And along the way we had fun and experienced some beautiful things that may or may not have been "true" or "real." But no matter. Our experience of them was true, which in a movie theater is all we have to go on. We know the images being projected are not "real" in the sense of physical or historical presence and yet we suspend our disbelief and let them affect us as if they were.
The Brothers Bloom is a film that is from start to finish adamantly unreal. It exists in a magical story world where heiresses can juggle chainsaws and con men spend their time playing shuffleboard on 1920s-style yachts. But it's also a film in which people are shown loving each other, laughing, and doing a Bolero dance under the moonlight. It's a film with beautiful oceans, sunsets, and epiphanies. That is, it's a film with a good deal of truth.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Do you think The Brothers Bloom is correct in its thematic assumption that "we write our own stories?" Is this a film about free will?
- What do you think of Stephen's final act and how it relates to the rest of the film? Is it just a dramatic end to his story that he planned all along? Or did life get the best of his plans?
- How is the brotherly love between Stephen and Bloom expressed in the film?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Brothers Bloom is rated PG-13, mostly for language (a few f-words) and violence (lots of explosions, guns, etc… but not a lot of blood). There is also a scene of two characters in bed together, but no actual sex or nudity is seen. Overall it is a fun, relatively clean film that families could probably enjoy together. It has a consistently positive attitude and should leave viewers with a smile on their face.
Photos © Summit Entertainment
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